Too late for beach season, but available for the beach season of the mind, arrives "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," the center of a charming fictive contemporary world that's a combination of the real, the virtual, and the imagined that manages to make a Google search a swashbuckling adventure with profound consequences.
Robin Sloan's first novel does a variety of other things, too, mixing a chivalric quest, a secret society, love and friendship, digital wizardry, and wit to craft an easy-reading story with real charm and momentum. While it's admittedly light as a byte, it delivers a surprising and sincere paean to human universals, set within a sophisticated matrix of technology – both that embodied by Silicon Valley and the SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco, and by that older revolutionary invention, the printed word.
Sloan, according to the book's author blurb, "divides his time between San Francisco and the Internet" and these are the worlds of his first-person novel. Narrator Clay Jannon is a twentysomething San Franciscan survivor of various business startups and meltdowns. He is a kind of tech amphibian combining a digital native's comfort with computing with analog affinities for paper and images and old-fashioned design.
Clay has had bad luck so far at jobs. Newly cut loose from his latest one, Clay walks around San Francisco looking for "help wanted" signs, and stumbles on an odd "24-hour bookstore": he is "pretty sure ‘24-hour' was a euphemism for something. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. My help wanted hike had taken me far from home; the place next door was called Booty's and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed."
However, the deserted store was indeed what its sign asserted – "the place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books […] It felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight's reach." Then, "a quiet voice called from the stacks. ‘What do you seek in these shelves.' "
The voice belongs to Ajax Penumbra, proprietor. And thereby hangs a tale.
Clay gets hired to work the late shift. And, slowly, he gets drawn into the world inhabited by the odd clientele of the store, solitary repeat visitors who come 24 hours a day requesting titles from a particular section of the store Clay dubs "The Wayback Section," both because of their placement and their dust and age, and the age of the customers who burst in desperately seeking those titles. With plenty of time on his hands in the long watches of the night, he begins nosing around and eventually discovers the store is much more than it seems.
Part of Clay's duties include hand writing, in the latest of a series of venerable journals kept under the counter, an account of what happens during his shift and descriptions of the customers and their transactions. As he learns more and more, the store's existence and its history become ever more puzzling – he writes in the log book, "for the benefit of some future clerk, and perhaps simply to prove to myself this is real: ‘something very strange is happening in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.' "
True dat. The store is more library and resource than retailer, and one of a number scattered around the globe, and the odd customers and Penumbra himself are members of the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine, an international legion of code-cracking bibliophiles devoted to a quest – deciphering one of the world's rarest and most valuable printed books, the encrypted codex vitae of Albertus Manutius, a 15th century Venetian printer and book making pioneer. The reason: they believe it contains the secret of immortality.
How many novels are there in which a 16th century printing font, Gerritzoon, assumes the power of a character (pun intended), playing a major role in both the life of Unbroken Spine and in the events that mischievously spin out from San Francisco to New York, and from today to the 15th century? Let's just say, not many.
And Google also plays a huge role here, as symbol, resource and avatar of human aspiration – Sloan's take on the company may be overly romantic, but here it's a major motive force. Ultimately, this is a light, good-hearted, optimistic book with a real West Coast – or digital coast – vibe. There's conflict but no violence visible anywhere, even in the background, plenty of camaraderie and gentle adventure .
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux304 pages, $25