Monday, October 8, 2012

“There are no free stories in the secret library of the Unbroken Spine.”

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan

What is it that bibliophiles everywhere love to read about? That’s right; all things bookish! Debut novelist Robin Sloan uses this insight to great effect in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It’s guaranteed to charm any just about any book lover. As for me, I just want to quote from it at length. There were so many delicious passages!

The novel is told from the first-person perspective of 20-something San Franciscan Clay Jannon. Laid off from his corporate design job and desperate for work, Clay takes the graveyard shift at this most unusual bookstore:
“Penumbra sells used books, and they are in such uniformly excellent condition that they might as well be new. He buys them during the day—you can only sell to the man with his name on the window—and he must be a tough customer. He doesn’t seem to pay much attention to bestseller lists. His inventory is eclectic; there’s no evidence of pattern or purpose other than, I suppose, his own personal taste. So, no teenage wizards or vampire police here. That’s a shame, because this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about a teenage wizard. This is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.”

I totally know that store. Penumbra’s however, is quirkier than most. For starters, they hardly ever sell any books. But there’s a bizarre collection of secret books that are not sold, but lent to a select clientele. And Penumbra has very specific rules regarding these dealings. Sloan’s novel begins as Clay’s quest to understand the mysteries of his new workplace, and it expands exponentially from there. It involves a 500-year search for arcane knowledge, a series of trippy fantasy novels, and what Clay recons is a cult that “seems like it might have been designed specifically to prey on bookish old people—Scientology for scholarly seniors.”

Despite the readerly trappings, this novel and the characters within are Silicon Valley savvy. Well, some of them are; it’s generational. Clay’s love interest, Kat, is employed by Google, and that company plays a significant role in the proceedings:
“Kat gushes about Google’s projects, all revealed to her now. They are making a 3-D web browser. They are making a car that drives itself. They are making a sushi search engine—here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner—to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free. They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.”

Elsewhere there is talk of e-readers. When the bookstore’s customers disappear, Clay wonders if they’ve all bought Kindles: “I have one, and I use it most nights. I always imagine the books staring and whispering, Traitor!—but come on, I have a lot of free first chapters to get through.”

If you haven’t picked up on this yet, the humor of this novel really tickled me. It goes without saying that I loved the San Francisco setting. (Says Mr. Penumbra, “This city of ours—it has taken me too long to realize it, but we are in the Venice of this world. The Venice.” Amen, brother!) Yes, Clay and his friends seemed very, very young to me (When did I get this middle-aged?), but that didn’t stop me from warming to the clever and quirky cast of characters that Sloan has created.

I would think this book would appeal to Jasper Fforde fans. Sloan’s novel is not a fantasy, and is therefore somewhat more in keeping with reality as we know it, but still, his is a heightened and more literate reality. In Sloan’s world, you could walk into this bar:
“There’s a stack of books on the table and a metal cup with pointy pencils that smell fresh and sharp. In the stack, there are copies of Moby-Dick, Ulysses, The Invisible Man—this is a bar for bibliophiles.”

That’s a world that I was oh-so-happy to spend time in! I was, in fact, sorry to leave. Mr. Sloan, I can’t wait to see what you come up with next.

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