Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore Hard to Close

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012)
By Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 978-0374214913
* * * ½

If Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore were a mall movie, the poster tag line and review pull out quotes might include: “Bound Books-Meet e-Books,” “Nostalgia in a Steel-cage Death Match with Innovation,” “The Luddites Battle the Techies,” “Utopia Takes a Holiday,” or  “Vanity Versus Basic Biology.” I’d label it “The Da Vinci Code for Geeks,” and my one-line assessment is that it’s an engaging page-turner that should not be confused with great literature. It may be my favorite “guilty pleasure” of 2012.

Our protagonist is Clay Jannon, a guy in his twenties who may be too bright and too clever for his own good. He’s a quick study for just about everything that doesn’t involve deep human interaction: computer hacking, design work, typography, detective work, electronic systems, cryptology…. His intellect has made him mildly jaded. He’s a dilettante with pronounced slacker tendencies who has done very little with his talents beyond designing Websites for concept bagel emporiums that go under at the drop of a sesame seed, whilst buddies from his college days raked in cash from high tech ventures as profound as hardware development and as banal as making superb boob-simulation software! Faced with the need to pay his share of the rent in the San Francisco digs he shares with two other people, Clay takes a job at a shop whose name intrigues him: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

This is no ordinary bookstore. Clay works the graveyard shift and seldom sees a paying customer. He does, however, encounter numerous “members” who borrow ornately bound books shelved in high stacks. They come and go quickly and Penumbra gives Clay the odd charge of writing down their member number in a massive logbook along with everything he observes about them. He’s also told not to snoop among the reserved stacks, remove anything from the store, or investigate any of the logbooks. Can you say “Pandora’s Box?” As Clay grows more and more curious (and bold), he adds some coconspirators: college friends/entrepreneurs, a roommate, and Kat Potente, a gorgeous high flier who works for Google. Her name means “powerful” (aka/potent) in Spanish, German, and Italian, and is a synonym for “stiff” in the latter language. Kat is both strong and stiff, but before long Clay is in love (or is it lust?) with her. She seems to reciprocate, though it’s very clear that she loves Google more than anything or anybody.

The book’s central mystery is straight out of Dan Brown by way of National Treasure. To say too much would be a spoiler, so let me tantalize you by asking you to think of a secret code, a possible search for immortality, a bicoastal caper, and what it might be like if your favorite book group consisted of a bunch of Rosicrucian wannabes. Got that? Of course you don’t!  It’s the job of Clay and his team to make sense (or not) of all of this. Like a Dan Brown novel–also guilty pleasures–or a Nick Cage National Treasure film–way too banal to suppress my guilt instincts–Robin Sloan’s novel relies on too many coincidences and sudden flashes of insight about amazingly arcane things to be  plausible. It also depends on technology that doesn’t actually exist yet and levels of secrecy unlikely in the age of, well, Google. But, as good mysteries do, Sloan’s pacing and setups are such that you are willing to suspend disbelief to see how things resolve. If you can get past the fact that Sloan’s prose is occasionally turgid and the narrative structure is frequently contrived, Sloan has a fascinating yarn to spin. You also have to give him credit–it’s not everyone who can fashion a novel loosely based on the life of Aldus Mantius (1449-1515), the late medieval printer who developed a favored form of slanted italicized type (with the help of punch cutter Francesco Griffo), the semicolon, and standardized punctuation. (If you think that’s no big deal, try deciphering a pre-punctuation Latin manuscript!)

Sloan used to work for Twitter; hence he has at least passing familiarity with some of the issues he raises in his novel, including what constitutes a “cult.” Google comes across as an amazing innovation incubator, but are its devotees any less scary than robed cultists from the past? Other conundrums are raised. Does the digital future portend a kind of salvation, or the rise of new slave masters? Will that future destroy the past, or will that which survives be the only hope of a better future? What does tomorrow hold for art? Will technology bring eternal life, or death of the soul? (If tech-based immortality seems preposterous to you, check out inventor/futurologist Ray Kurzweil’s belief in the “technological singularity.”)

These are interesting and important questions, but don’t expect Sloan to resolve them in any substantive way. In the end, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore isn’t much more than pulp fiction for the Millennial Generation. In fact, it’s the sort of book that’s probably going to look very dated in about five years. All the more reason to read it now! It’s a quick, breezy read that’s a bit like hot air-popped popcorn: filling without being bad for you. Go ahead; indulge and damn the guilt! --Rob Weir

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