Book Review – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

After years of my life spent in bookstores, I was excited to read Robin Sloan’s first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Harper Perennial, 2012).

It was, therefore, disappointing to discover that the story I thought was about books was actually an ode to technology. To the point that I began to wonder if this novel was sponsored by Google.

Following the economic downturn, Clay Jannon finds himself unemployed and under-experienced. A timely premise that most twentysomethings these days can identify with. Despite his background in computers and technology, Clay finds that the only job he can get in San Francisco is at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, manned by the eccentric Mr. Penumbra. The concept of a 24-hour bookstore is intriguing and San Francisco seemed like the perfect location for this juxtaposition of old world knowledge and new-found tech.

Clay takes on the night shift. Customers are few and far between. Those who do come in don’t purchases books but instead borrow them – old, encoded tomes from what Clay refers to as “the Waybacklist”. When his curiosity gets the better of him, Clay finds himself stumbling into an ancient secret and a world he never knew existed. Along the way, he meets a cute girl named Kat who works at Google and wants to help him crack the code using modern technology.

The introduction of Kat also introduced my main problem with the novel. Clay and Kat go out on a date where they talk about…Google. Kat loves working for Google. She’s enthusiastic and excited and wants to tell everyone what Google can do. This is her entire character. We never learn where she’s from, what attracts her to Clay, what kind of food she likes. In fact, we learn that Kat pretty much only eats food from Google. Which, apparently, they add supplements to. It was around this time that I started to feel suspicious of Google. If my job dictated what I ate and told me they were adding supplements to my food to increase my productivity, I’d be out of there so fast.

The real problem with the novel though is that all the characters are like this. Each can be defined by one or two characteristics. Clay’s childhood friend, Neel, is a millionaire geek. Clay’s roommate, Mat, builds models. Clay works at a used bookstore but likes computers. None of them have depth and so there’s no reason to particularly care about any of them. I think the story wanted us to feel some tension between Kat and Clay and to worry about their relationship but I just couldn’t. There was nothing to them.

As the story progresses and as Clay and his friends seem to grow closer to solving the mystery of the Waybacklist, it seems as if technology has been the answer all along. There could be some interesting questions raised here about the value of work that takes time, or the value of a group of people achieving something together rather than a machine. Unfortunately, the novel lacks that depth and I’m not sure what message it’s trying to convey. There is a great moment where they make a technological attempt to crack the code and we see the mirrored disappointment of Kat and Mr. Penumbra. Mr. Penumbra’s disappointment comes from the fact that maybe there is no deeper meaning to the code he’s spent most of his life trying to crack, while Kat’s comes from a disbelief that Google could ever fail her.

What is interesting about the novel is when we get glimpses into the different worlds of knowledge. Whether that’s Google headquarters, an underground secret library, or a museum storage facility, this is where the novel shines. The descriptions are fascinating and offer a fun look into all the ways we store knowledge, as well as a look at what people find worthwhile.

While investigating one of these places, Clay has a realization:

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.

This seems to be the cohesive thought that binds the novel together. It’s an interesting observation and one worth exploring. I just wish we’d had better characters to accompany us on the journey.

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