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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan

(Picador; US: Sep 2013)

Some books you just don’t want to end. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan’s first novel, is one of those books.


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is simply clever, with a good story and with likable, quirky characters in unique but oddly familiar situations. We meet the main character and narrator on the first page, when he tells us: “My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper.”


Clay is an art school graduate who had been working as a graphic designer at bagel start up. The bagel company goes belly up, as “a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century,” leaving Clay unemployed with few prospects. After showcasing his ladder-climbing skills and acing one interview prompt (naming a book he loves), Clay ends up working the third shift at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore


Clay soon realizes this bookstore isn’t quite like other bookstores. The store does sell used books—from Dashiell Hammett to Douglas Adams—and it’s not clear how the store makes money/stays in business, but as Clay quickly discovers, Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore is really two stores: “There’s the more or less normal bookstore, which is up front, packed in tight around the desk. There are short shelves marked with HISTORY and BIOGRAPHY and POETRY.”


The other store “is stacked behind and above all that, on the tall laddered shelves, and it is comprised of volumes that, as far as Google knows, don’t exist.” And thus the fun begins, as Clay sets out to discover the secrets of this second store. With a little help from his friends, he learns this store is patronized by a group called the Unbroken Spine, a fellowship of scholars dating back 500 years.


This knowledge, however, merely brings Clay to another conundrum: the members of the Unbroken Spine have a mystery of their own they are trying to solve. So Clay and crew (primarily all Information Technology junkies) step in to help solve this puzzle (and save Mr. Penumbra’s store). Making the big question: can a bunch of Googlers solve a mystery book lovers (and not ones who use Kindles) have been trying to solve for over 500 years? In this tale, OK stands for Old Knowledge on Google, and the behemoth company plans on eliminating bookstores: “Once we’ve got everything scanned, and cheap reading devices are ubiquitous… nobody’s going to need bookstores, right?” 


The search for answers takes Clay from San Francisco to Google headquarters to New York City to Nevada, and along the way Sloan puts in plenty of smart humor and subtle (and not so subtle) digs. A few favorites: Clay walks the streets of San Francisco looking for help wanted signs but notes he should be “more suspicious” of these because “legitimate employers use Craigslist”. His oldest friend Neel amassed his wealth by creating a program that makes, among other things, computer-generated breasts. Kat, future Google PM and Clay’s love interest, has trouble “operating” a newspaper. 


Mat, one of Clay’s roommates, is working on “the design and construction of a blood-thirsty demon with blue-denim skin. It was part of a horror movie set inside an Abercrombie & Fitch.” The great “reveal” is made via a computer-generated slide show presentation with guests munching on vegan oatmeal cookies. And finally, Clay’s realization that he does have a skill but it’s not related to coding or anything particularly high tech: “I do know people with special skills, and I know how to put their skills together”.


Clay does have a friend or acquaintance to help him at almost every turn. At times, this may be annoying or perhaps be seen as an overly convenient plot device. Need a book scanner “custom made for stealth”? No worries, you belong to a virtual community that can help with that. Need a place to stay in NYC? Again no worries, a friend of a friend owns not only a hotel but the “ultimate hacker hideout”. Still, the point Sloan seems to be making is clear: all the technology in the world means very little without people, a thought one of Clay’s final musings confirms: “There is no immortality that is not built on friendship”.


Clay’s final thoughts in the Epilogue may not appeal to all readers, however. The last half dozen or so pages in the book wrap everything up neatly, very, very neatly. And some of this information is perhaps unnecessary; even without the Epilogue, it’s pretty clear where Clay and Kat’s relationship is going.


However, in a book that seems to be just as much puzzle as story, there’s something appealing about having this type of conclusion, of knowing what Clay and Mr. Penumbra and Neel and even Ashley will do next. And without this information, the book might be akin to a jigsaw puzzle with one or two missing pieces—the image would still be recognizable, but the incompleteness of it would grate. After all, there’s just something so satisfying about pushing that final puzzle piece into place.


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is worth both a read and a second read. It’s a masterful work that skillfully navigates questions about technologies—new and old—in a way that should appeal to both Luddites and the tech savvy, to those who love print and those who prefer e-readers. And while the mysticism and mythos may not scream realism, Clay’s circumstances—a recent college graduate looking for a job and finding out his life isn’t going to end up being exactly what he thought—adds a fantastic (but not fantastical) element to the book.

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