Sunday, September 29, 2013

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

If I were to win the lottery tomorrow, several things would happen in quick succession.  1- I’d quit my job.  (Don’t get me wrong, I like my job, but come on.)  2- I’d buy a little country cottage (either in Canada or the UK, I haven’t decided yet), and stuff it with books.  3- I’d probably get a part-time job in an independent bookstore.  I have a desire to have a low-pressure life in which I am surrounded by books.  (And I don’t think that’s asking too much.)  So, when I heard about my latest read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, I was intrigued.  A bookstore that could be accessed at any time?  And the picture on the cover looks exactly what my country-cottage would look like (yes, I judged a book by its cover.  I do it all the time.).  Once I got into the book however, I found it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be, but man, was it an enjoyable read!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of Clay, a recently unemployed web-designer who is desperately looking for a job after the down-turn in the market.  While wandering around San Francisco, he sees a help wanted sign in the window of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, and stops in to see if it would be a good fit.  Once he’s gotten the job, however, Clay finds himself in an odd reality of working the over-night shift where he’s asked to record (in minute detail) each customer he serves – but that’s not saying much, as sometimes days go by without seeing anyone.  And yet, when people do come in, it’s to borrow what appear to be encoded books from the older-section of the store.  Clay can’t get a beat on what is going on.  In order to stave off boredom, Clay creates a 3D model of the store and the lending history of the books – quickly, a pattern emerges that leads Clay to an odd reality and collection of truths.  In reality, Clay’s job at the bookstore is a quest for…. well, everything and anything, really. 

In his book, Sloan has created a cast of characters that could each support their own plot and books.  Clay is the modern every-man, and yet he feels like something of a beta-male; while he’s quite capable on his own, and can be pushed into stepping up to the plate, he’s smart enough to recognize his limitations, and depends on those around him with special skills to see him through tough situations.  Kate, his girlfriend, is a real fire-cracker of a woman; she’s smart, capable, and knows what she wants and goes for it.  Neel, his childhood friend, proves the theory that men will interact with their friends as they did at the age when they met; while both Clay and Neel are grown men, their interactions often feels like a sixth-grade recess – it’s adorable and charming.  And Mr. Penumbra – he is just a sweet, dedicated and charming man in a cardigan who you want to be friends with.

In terms of writing style, Sloan brings to this book an ingrained sense of humour that adds an extra layer to the work.  This story could easily have been told straight, just relying on the characters and plot to carry it.  But as it is narrated by Clay in the first person, the reader gets to access his internal monologue, which has a tongue-in-cheek attitude that adds an extra layer to the over-all effect of the book.  If Sloan had told the story straight, he might have come across as taking himself too seriously, but with this extra dynamic thrown in, he tempers the conspiracy-theory feel of the plot and makes it relatable and believable.  

What I found so great about this book was that it tapped into the literary intersection that our society currently finds itself in.  As a historian, I’ve been wearily watching the developments in the world of writing for year; I’m not talking about writing styles/themes/topics (because those are always changing), but about how people are accessing what they are reading.  eReaders and the internet are changing how people are interacting with literature; for almost 500 years (since Guttenberg), you only had one choice – words printed on paper.  But in the last decade, reading has taken a quantum-leap forward into the virtual landscape.  The newspaper industry is experiencing its last gasp as on-line news networks and blogs are making them obsolete, publishers are releasing electronic versions at the same time as paper versions of their products, and book sellers seem to be placing as much importance on their eVersions as the old fashion versions of their wares.  

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is set in the old world; the plot revolves around bound-paper books; and yet major plot pieces depend heavily on technology.  I learned a tremendous amount about programming, the internet, and Google while reading this book.  For a book that I thought would be able working in a brick-and-mortar bookstore, a lot of the action is dependent on the intangible world that is cyberspace.  It was an odd, interesting, and engaging dynamic that I wasn’t looking for.

So, final verdict?  Read this book, definitely.  Sloan has created a wonderful story, engaging characters, and an ode to the literary and modern world.  The only question you have to ask yourself is, are you going to read the paper or the eVersion?  I’ll leave that up to you, but I firmly believe there’s something to be said for the smell of the book….

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I have this one sitting on my shelf but have yet to read it. It sounds as if I should make an effort to read it sooner rather than later!

    BTW - my plans, should I ever win the lottery, sound very much like yours :-)