Sunday, May 20, 2018
Books

Review: Robin Sloan's 'Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore' straddles divide of paper, e-books

Robin Sloan's delightful first novel articulates, in fun style, the collision of paper books and e-books. The protagonist is a tech nerd, but he's also a book nerd, so both those who crave shiny new technologies and those who relish the scent of paper will find room in these pages.

After losing his job in the rapidly changing world of digital information, Clay Jannon takes casual work in a dusty independent bookstore. In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, the shop boasts impossibly high shelves, requiring plenty of ladder work for the solitary clerk — or it would if the store had a few more customers. Clay takes the graveyard shift, and apart from stragglers and a girl from the next-door strip club, there isn't much passing trade.

There are regulars, though: eccentric, extreme bibliophiles, who lurch into the store demanding obscure titles shelved high and in semi-secrecy. Instructed to log details of his customers, noting their dress and demeanor, Clay is also cautioned not to look inside any of the leather-bound tomes he retrieves. Right.

The narrative voice is what makes these opening pages so engaging: smart, hip and witty, like the shiny surface of a new iPhone. (Sloan used to work for Twitter.) If glib, the narrative is warm, too, and self-effacing, peppered with ironies. Predictable as it is that Clay will peek inside one of those books, you're already drawn into a romp that involves secret societies and black-robed acolytes on a quest to discover the secret of eternal life. Cleverly, the author refers to those well-worn fantasies as Clay pursues his quest. The young bookshop employee has a cohort of West Coast acquaintances only too ready to lend their techno skills to finding the solution to a 500-year-old mystery.

This is a book about systems, both secret and overt, exploring codes, filing, programming and designing. Storytelling has its operating systems, too, and though the author creates a splendid opening and an acceptable resolution, he runs out of steam for the great engine system of the middle. The weakness may be in the development of character. Clay is hardly changed by his experience, and for a book making a large statement about friendship, his friends always come in and out of the story on the basis of utility rather than affection or humanity.

But otherwise, this is a fine debut, and these are problems Sloan will surely fix in his novels to come.

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