We’re reading MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE By Robin Sloan

10 Sep

Tara Isabella Burton discovers that ancient conspiracies are no match for modern search engines.

Atlantic, PPB £12.99 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, PPB $9.00

A casual bookshelf browser encountering Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan’s tantalizingly-titled debut novel, might be forgiven for expecting an aesthetic as Gothic, musty and gleefully old-fashioned as the dead-tree trade itself. The first paragraph of the novel ticks all the necessary bibliophiliac boxes – bookshop ladders so tall we cannot see the ground beneath our feet; the shadows of bats flitting over the covers.

Fortunately – or unfortunately – Sloan swiftly reminds us that we are in the present day, and so cracked spines and dog-eared pages must give way to laptops, browser tabs, e-books, Google, Apple, and Twitter (to reference only those technological touchstones that get a mention in the book’s first three pages). Clay Jannon, the book’s affable if vaguely sketched protagonist, is a graphic designer, coder, and occasional social media impresario newly unemployed in the wake of the recession. Desperate for a source of income, he answers a Craigslist ad and takes a job at Mr. Penumbra’s “24-hour bookstore”, a labyrinth of shelves and ladders, obscure volumes, and inscrutable categorisation: exactly the kind of place, in other words, that Clay’s Kindle-toting contemporaries have put out of business.

The only way an independent bookstore can stay open in San Francisco, Clay soon discovers, is to be inextricably linked to a centuries-old conspiracy. As Clay delves deeper into the world of Mr. Penumbra’s mysterious bookshop – and its no less enigmatic customers – he finds himself drawn into the world of dead-tree-books and their equally desiccated owners, even as he uses all the technological tools at his disposal (and, via a conveniently employed love interest, the resources of Google) to uncover the bookstore’s secrets and those of the Unbroken Spine, the Illuminati-esque global society of bibliophiles whose quest for the usual MacGuffins (breaking an ancient code, gaining eternal life) keeps the bookstore alive.

The conceit underpinning Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – The Da Vinci Code investigated with the computing power of the twenty-first-century – is a clever one. The narrative is compelling and highly readable, the prose deft and unobtrusive. The plot speeds along without too much meandering, in a straightforward manner recalling the Dungeons and Dragons adventures Clay and Neel recall fondly from their childhoods. Such problems as arise are solved briskly and expediently, more often than not with the aid of the internet But for such an ostensible love letter to the written word, in all its myriad forms, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore often feels surprisingly perfunctory. Clay’s relationship with his girlfriend Kat, whose only defining characteristics seem to be that she’s pretty and works for Google, comes across less a genuine human connection than a device generated by a plot algorithm. So too Neel, Clay’s best friend (like Kat, a convenient character to have on hand – his wealth allows Sloan to wave aside any financially troublesome elements of the plot). Neel’s function in the story never goes beyond the merely pragmatic. Even Penumbra himself, all wizened brows and trembling lips, remains more a type than a fully fleshed-out character, diminishing the emotional heft of their interactions.

“A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need.” Thus does Clay Jannon implore his readers, in a rare moment of quiet lyricism, to remember the book he plans to write – his account of the secrets of Mr. Penumbra and his mysterious bookshop. But such promise comes too little, too late. Would that this were the book he had written.


Also on the blog:

Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season.

Tim Maughan explores a book made of Bristol.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: