MY FAVORITE English teacher (who is also my mom) once said that the mark of a truly engaging novel was one in which you had a million questions upon finishing the first few pages. This, I quickly found, was exactly the case with Robin Sloan’s debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and your next summer read.
After rounding out the first ten pages my questions were many:
- Why do customers need access to a bookstore open 24 hours a day?
- Who are these customers anyway? What is significant about them?
- What types of books are they reading?
- What could possibly be in the books that our protagonist is forbidden from seeing?
Primary questions out of the way, this book intersects fantasy quest with electrifying adventure all through the lens of a loose, humorous narrative with a collection of characters that seem to have just escaped from the pages of an Edgar Allen Poe short story or a Google search yielding “young professional computer experts under 30.” The novel dissects the modern conflict of old knowledge (print books) versus new technology (electronic devices) and brings the two worlds together in the most unexpected of ways.
Sloan’s novel opens in San Francisco during the recession. Clay Jannon is a web designer freshly graduated from art school and like so many of his friends, is newly unemployed. Walking us through San Francisco (“a good place for walks if your legs are strong”), Clay scans the city’s help-wanted window signs – “which is not something you really do, right? I should probably be more suspicious of those. Legitimate employers use Craigslist.”
All you need are those two sentences quoted above and you can tell that the prose of the novel is light, conversational and effortless in its lyricism. One minute I’m reading about the steepness of the streets of San Francisco and then the next, the author will hit me with this magic: “… suddenly the ground will fall away and you’ll see straight down to the bay, with the buildings lit up orange and pink along the way… all the tall narrow houses, the windows like eyes and teeth, the wedding-cake filigree. And looming behind it all, if you’re facing the right direction, you’ll see the rusty ghost of the Golden Gate Bridge.” This is the kind of sentence I can imagine Hemingway saying, “that’s just goddamn beautiful.”
I could go on about the lyricism and humor of the prose (when Mr. Penumbra asks Clay if he owns a Kindle, “[i]t feels like it’s the principal asking me if I have weed in my backpack”). Most of the time I felt as though Clay and I were friends and he was telling me about this crazy story that happened after he’d decided to inquire about a job at a 24-hour bookstore.
Just as Clay is about to turn around and head back to his apartment, he spots the 24-Hour bookstore with its help-wanted sign, “… the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.” Clay meets Mr. Penumbra, the bookstore’s whimsical owner, who tells Clay of the position’s strict conditions: he may not browse, read or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes and he must keep precise records of all transactions of customers, their appearances, state of mind, what they’re wearing, if they appear injured, etc. Noting the absurdity of the conditions yet eager for a steady income, Clay readily agrees and accepts the position. Like all healthy protagonists, he does not yet realize the significance of the role he’s just accepted.
During his time spent at Mr. Penumbra’s, Clay comes to realize that there are two types of customers the 24-hour bookstore serves: the random passerby, briefly browsing the shelves but rarely buying anything and then the patrons for whom the bookstore is actually intended: “a community of people who orbit the store like strange moons… they arrive with algorithmic regularity. They never browse. They come wide-awake, completely sober and vibrating with need.” (Somewhere Hemingway is smiling with his pipe between his lips.)
This second community of customers exclusively use what Clay refers to as the Waybacklist: the comically tall, Dr. Seusian bookshelves in the way back of the store to which Clay must ascend ladders to retrieve books, all unique and encrypted with long strings of inarticulate characters and numbers. The customers trade one book for another and without paying, leave immediately, typically in a state of distress or urgency.
Curiosity gets the better of Clay. With the sudden disappearance of his employer, Mr. Penumbra as the final straw, Clay recruits his two friends and romantic interest, all high-tech experts from Palo Alto, on a journey across the country to hack the secrets behind the store and its mysterious manager. But each discovery reveals a new secret and now Clay and company must uncover the mysteries surrounding the existence of the Unbroken Spine, a 500-year-old secret society (and possibly history’s most bizarre book club). Unable to rely solely on technology alone to unlock the 500-year-old mystery, the gang must collaborate with members of the Unbroken Spine and thus, the worlds of books and computers must work together in solving the puzzle.
The contrasting reminders of old knowledge and modernity are everywhere in the text (this sentence, “Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone,” is just tremendous) and Sloan provides us with a warm, smart plot with philosophical themes of the significance and relevance of how books and technology relate to each other and the power both hold over us.
Call it what you will, this novel is a love letter to books and technology and the magic they create when they are fused together, whether you read it in printed form or on your Kindle.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore gets 5/5 Unbroken Spines from this satisfied reader:
Curated with love by Sam