Gavin Wray

Book review: 'Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore'

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel by Robin Sloan. The story starts humbly with Clay Jannon, an unemployed young man in San Francisco adept at the interwebs, who gets a job working the night shift at a bookshop.

Four things are odd:

  • The shop’s shelves are huge towering structures reaching up several storeys.
  • There are very, very few customers; what customers there are, ask for books with strange code-like titles and are feverishly devoted to one particular series.
  • Penumbra, the owner and manager, seems indifferent to selling books.
  • Penumbra asks Jannon to record details about all the customers in a dusty old ledger – what book they asked for, the time of day, appearance and the clothes they wore.

After some uneventful shifts, Jannon’s curiosity takes over and he starts exploring the shop, its books and the customer ledgers. It’s like pulling on a loose thread. The more Jannon explores, and his ideas form, more ideas unravel and the bookshop becomes stranger.

Also, Penumbra may not be the mild, fuzzy old man he appears, and there seems to be a pattern in the customers’ book selections, some kind of code.

A story that starts quite softly suddenly gathers pace, shifts and turns into something completely unexpected. Jannon uses Google AdSense and data visualisation – recent real-life technology – to test his theories, to try to uncover a mystery he feels is hidden in the books if only he could just figure out the pattern.

The story gets an extra energy burst with the arrival of Jannon’s girlfriend, Kat Potente, a super-smart technophile, devouring knowledge and exclaiming rapid fire ideas, who works at Google (natch).

Suddenly, Jannon, Potente and Penumbra jet off on a bi-coastal journey to uncover the mystery hidden in the books.

We’re transported to Googleplex, Google’s Californian corporate headquarters, and their mind-boggling array of analytical technology, processing power and nerd-chic hipsters. Then we’re taken to New York City, into ancient sub-subterranean libraries, skirting with a cape-wearing cult of bibliophiles.

All through this, we experience Sloan’s skill in weaving together very different subjects – technology, design, typography, visualisation, relationships, love and, above all, bibliomania – into a swiftly paced story that’s part literature, part thriller.

What stands out is Sloan’s passion for these subjects, modern and old, and I think that’s what makes this book so engaging. When he references data visualisation, the Ruby programming language or Google’s technological might, it’s relevant to the plot development. You believe Sloan knows what he’s talking about. For other authors, such technological or cultural references might sound contrived. In this novel, they fit.

Sloan says:

“I wrote this book because it’s the one I wanted to read, and I tried to pack it full of the things I love: books and bookstores; design and typography; Silicon Valley and San Francisco; fantasy and science fiction; quests and projects.”

This is one of the reasons why I enjoyed the novel so much. I’m interested in technology, design and literature too. When someone melds these topics into a good mystery novel, it makes me happy!

This combination reminded me of two other recent novels I really enjoyed, set about a decade apart.

Jeff Noon wrote about a group of misfit mathematics students in Nymphomation (1997) living in a dystopian Rusholme (a real neighbourhood in Manchester). The students experiment with numbers, chaos theory, 1990s networks, floppy discs, winding Victorian cellars and balti sauce, and get caught up in a surreal bio-technological death match. It sounds like a Orwellian Pacman game but it’s better than that. It’s also funny.

Sloan’s novel is similar in that he clearly loves and ‘gets’ the technological zeitgeist, topics and place, yet is willing to stretch reality into something strange and thrilling.

Anther novel Penumbra reminded me of was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1989). In Eco’s story, three book editors specialising in the occult and mystic, bored of crackpot manuscripts, decide to invent their own conspiracy theory. They use the cut-up technique to enter random snippets of information into some kind of ‘computer’. However, the fictional story spat out by the computer becomes increasingly real, deaths occur, there are skirmishes with cults and things get scary. Eco’s writing style is more dense and complex than Sloan’s, and not to everybody’s liking (I loved In the Name of the Rose and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana but found Baudolino and The Island of the Day Before impenetrable).

Sloan has written a brilliant story, full of enthusiasm for literature, design, technology and life. I highly recommend it.

Content © 2021 Gavin Wray
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