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Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2012
288 pages

When the Great Recession of a few years ago hits the country, Clay Jannon loses his web design job in San Francisco, spending his new free time wandering the city and checking out the help wanted ads. It’s on one of his walks that he comes across a help wanted sign in the shop window of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Mr Penumbra’s main requirements are pretty straight-forward: work the night shift (ten to six) and be able to climb ladders. The latter is a clear necessity, as the shop may be narrow, but it’s ceiling is three storeys high and the walls are lined with shelves all the way up.

It’s not a popular bookshop, with a limited range of titles and hardly any customers, and Clay can’t figure out how it survives. Selling a book a week is about the best he’s been able to accomplish – partly because no one comes in, and when they do, the shop doesn’t have what they’re looking for. But there are a few people who come at odd hours of the night, though: an odd collection of older people who seem at turns furtive, shy and manic, but they don’t buy books. They borrow them with a special card, books from the back portion of the shop, what Clay calls the “waybacklist” – books that have foreign-sounding (or possibly just Latin) titles, no barcodes or ISBNs, and to cap it off, one of the rules of working at Mr Penumbra’s is that he doesn’t look inside them. Another is that he write down everything about them in a logbook after they’ve left: what they were wearing, what they said, everything.

His friends, though, have no such rules, and eagerly explore the dizzying heights of the bookshop, showing Clay that the books all appear to be written in a kind of code. What does it all mean? What are the borrowers doing with these books? Once Clay decides to figure it out, he puts his modern-day computer know-how to the task and uncovers something truly bizarre.

It may have been the mention of Haruki Murakami in the publisher’s blurb, or it may just have been the blurb itself (and my own wishful thinking), but I was expecting this to be a novel with a touch of magical realism. Something inventively speculative and unusual. My mild disappointment with this book is mostly because of this vague expectation, but once I realised it wasn’t that kind of book, I tried to forget it and let the story tell itself. And the story is a quirky one with some interesting elements and a real tongue-in-cheek poke at both the modern computer age and reclusive bibliophiles, or book lovers in general (the idea being that bookshops are a kind of secret society – Sloan takes that and turns it into a real secret society).

You could say, even, that this novel is about the uneasy and at times unfriendly relationship between the traditional bookish medium, and information technology – or between the groups of people who align themselves with one or the other, and which camp has the greater claim to encapsulating human achievement and knowledge (the “which is better” argument). The two occupy such vastly different corners of the world, and where they merge they tend to merge awkwardly and with an ill fit. Such is what Mr Penumbra’s bookshop embodies, and Mr Penumbra himself: a lover of books, but a man with a youthful enthusiasm to modernise his bookshop, and to use modern technology to solve the Big Secret (his introduction to e-readers is very cute).

Which is where Google enters the scene. I have to assume that the details about Google that Clay shares are pretty factual; Sloan comes across as someone with a background in computers or the internet or both, though I haven’t looked him up to see. The story manages to bring these two camps together and show how the old technology (printing and books) and the new (computers and the world wide web) can come together, work together, and not diminish the importance of each other. At the end of the day (or the book), they still occupy their separate spheres, but have been enriched by exposure to the other. Though I got the sense that books came out the win in a subtle battle of genius, there was such a gushing focus on Google as the marvel of the age that I felt a bit cheated – though the ending was satisfying in that regard, if you view the novel as the pitting of books and printing against the might of Google.

There is a marvellous use of settings and contrast of settings in the novel. The stark difference between Google’s ultra-modern offices – or “campus” – in California and the fellowship’s headquarters in New York, for example, is vivid and fascinating. Mr Penumbra’s bookshop itself is a wonderful place that you itch to explore as you read – and those strange, coded books are a strong lure. In Clay’s place, I would have wanted to investigate, too. Another fantastic setting is a bizarre storage facility that I had a bit of trouble imagining, as it’s a vast warehouse where all the stored things move about constantly. I find that, unless I understand the how, the mechanics of it behind the scenes, I have trouble picturing it. But it was still very cool. (Is it a real place? Makes me curious.)

Clay himself reminded me a bit of one of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X’s, even though he’s much too young for that; it’s his laid back style, his lack of ambition, his prosaic attitude. For someone who became unemployed in the recession, he’s not terribly worried about his future. When he meets Kat, a young, attractive Google whiz-kid (can you still use that term or is it horribly out-of-date now?), he embarks on a romantic relationship with her that, again, is very stress-free. Clay is an observer and a protagonist who often seems to be sitting on the sidelines. He’s resourceful, but his resources – as he comes to realise and appreciate – are knowing other people who have resources. But when he is stirred to action, it’s fun and exciting and quite a bit tense to read those scenes.

The novel has a lovely dose of humour throughout, and some really great lines, both witty and meaningful at the same time.

“You’re giving a medieval publisher a lot of credit,” I say.

“They figured out the circumference of the earth a thousand years before they invented printing,” she sniffs. Then she pokes a chopstick at me: “Could you figure out the circumference of the earth?”

“Well–no.” I pause for a moment. “Wait, could you?”

She nods. “Yeah, it’s actually pretty easy. The point is, they knew their stuff back then. And there’s stuff they knew that we still haven’t rediscovered. OK and TK, remember? Old knowledge. This might be the ultimate OK.”

After dinner, Kat won’t come back to the apartment with me. She says she has email to read, prototypes to review, wiki pages to edit. Did I really just lose out to a wiki on a Thursday night?

I walk alone in the darkness and wonder how a person would begin to determine the circumference of the earth. I have no idea. I’d probably just google it. [pp.209-210]

“It’s a museum’s job to keep things for posterity,” Tabitha sniffs. “We have a temperature-controlled storage unit full of Christmas sweaters.”

Of course. You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules. [p.253]

I loved the inclusion of Fantasy fiction in the story, which began as the story behind his friendship with Indian-American Neel when they were boys, and turns out to have a much bigger impact on the plot than you’d expect. The supporting cast in general were an interesting bunch, though you never really get to know them much, only within the confines of the plot. The “waybacklist” and Founder’s Puzzle were never properly explained – where did those books come from? Who wrote them? They can’t have been the life stories of the Fellowship’s members, because those won’t be read until after they solve the Big Secret (I’m calling it that because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, though it does mean there’s a lot of things I can’t discuss). It’s a small plot-hole quibble but it did bother me, right up to the end and beyond.

As a literary mystery, this is a fun ride, even if the premise is stronger than the resolution – it’s fitting and in keeping with the tone of the novel that the climax is anti-climatic and also a kind of in-joke for book lovers and readers, but a satisfying ending can still be anti-climatic. Where Sloan excels is in creating a “shadow world” and a book cult: the atmosphere is superb, but as is often the case, once you know the magician’s trick, it’s no longer magical.


Other Reviews:

“Sloan has created a book that is of the moment, a book that celebrates all the weird and unbelievable things that we can do with technology – well, perhaps what the young and clever programmers, artists and Google employees in the story can do with technology – and yet at the same time honours and celebrates the magic of the written word in all its complex history.” The Indextrious Reader

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore appears on the surface to be a book about books. However, don’t be diverted – it is a quest tale, a personal exploration of reading beliefs and much, much more. It deserves your attention as you follow the characters on their journey towards the ultimate codex vitae.” Lost in a Great Book

“It just became waaaay too much fonts, design, computer, internet, internet, Google, Google, Google for my enjoyment. Add in the dungeons and dragons kind of stuff and oooh a cool chick that likes computers and works at Google and it just solidified my non-interest in this story. It was overwhelmingly mired in the whole ‘sell your idea to Google and become rich era’. It became overwhelmingly shallow and boring.” Literary Hoarders

Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.

10 comments to Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

  • Thanks for the great review of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. Sounds good.

    Have a great day.

    Silver’s Reviews
    My Blog
    Elizabeth recently posted..Last Day for the Giveaway of THE GIRL ON THE CLIFFMy Profile


  • thanks for the link!! Enjoying your blog! I’ll be sure to stop by often!


  • I enjoyed the depth with which you reviewed Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore! I have a copy awaiting my own reading, but I have a few ahead of it yet. I truly hope I don’t feel mired down in all the Google-isms. Still, I am looking forward to exploring this one!
    Shirley @ My Bookshelf recently posted..The Savvy Reader Suggest 20 Book Ideas for the Avid ReaderMy Profile


  • I’ve got this one on my WishList already, but your review has me thinking I should go ahead and order it!
    Patti Smith recently posted..Snapshot Saturday – The Thanksgiving 2012 EditionMy Profile


  • Thanks for linking to my review! Unfortunately for me, I could not get passed the Google-love. You have done an excellent job of delving in to this book however! Nice job! I love how one book can be so many different things for others.


  • I thought they explained that the society created the Founder’s puzzle as a test, so I just assumed those who were already part of the society at the time created them. And it’s not that people can’t read those books until the big secret is revealed, it’s that the key to book isn’t revealed until the author dies.

    I agree with your last paragraph especially. That was exactly my feeling.
    megtao recently posted..[review] The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick RiordanMy Profile


    Shannon Reply:

    I would have liked it explained better, because that to me was a bit of a minor plot hole. I would think those books had been written especially for the Founder’s Puzzle, because there was something in them that, when cracked, would lead the reader to know which book they had to decode next. But I wished he’s explained who’d written them, because there were hundreds of books and that’s a lot of codes to come up with!

    I dunno, I remember them talking about how they believed unlocking Manutius’ book would give them immortality, and only then would their own books be read (and this is something else I didn’t understand – did they expect the ones who’d died already to come back to life, or was it incentive/motivation to crack the code in their own lifetime?). But I’m very hazy on the details because I didn’t they were explained properly, so I could just have easily misunderstood.


  • Oh no, I really didnt like Generation X – so it makes me nervous that something about this book reminded you of it, but Ill still give it a go!


    Shannon Reply:

    @Becky (Page Turners), It was just the main character, Becky, who gave off that, um, vibe? But the book, no, not at all! (I didn’t really like Generation X either. I couldn’t relate to the characters.)


  • […] Giraffe Days: “As a literary mystery, this is a fun ride, even if the premise is stronger than the resolution – it’s fitting and in keeping with the tone of the novel that the climax is anti-climatic and also a kind of in-joke for book lovers and readers, but a satisfying ending can still be anti-climatic. Where Sloan excels is in creating a ‘shadow world’ and a book cult: the atmosphere is superb, but as is often the case, once you know the magician’s trick, it’s no longer magical.” […]

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