Monday, November 26, 2012

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

Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2012
288 pp

"People still like the smell of books.

Take a bookstore where the shelves go up so high that they seemingly fade into the shadows, a mysterious group of customers who come in to take books out but never buy anything, a reading room buried beneath the city of New York, coded secrets and the ever-increasing wonders of the technological scene, and you have the ingredients that put together Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a very cool fantasy-like novel that is simultaneously entertaining and thought provoking. 
Set mainly in San Francisco, the main character is Clay Jannon, who has fallen on hard times and needs a job.  He is by trade a web designer, and after the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century,” lost his job after the start-up bagel company he works for goes out of business.  He gets by for a while, but he needs money and talking a walk one day runs across a bookstore with a help wanted sign in its window.  The bookstore is located on Broadway ("in a euphemistic part of town")  next to a place named Booty's; Jannon can't help but wonder what "24-hour bookstore" might be a euphemism for.  But it seems to be on the up and up -- and after Jannon answers some rather odd questions put to him by the owner, Mr. Penumbra, he's got the job, starting at midnight and working until early a.m..  It isn't long until he notices that most of the customers, whom he says are
 "exactly the kind of people you'd see in coffee shops, working through one-sided chess problems or solving Saturday crosswords with blue ballpoints pressed perilously hard into the newsprint," 
come to the bookstore to take out some very "unique" tomes, some with "cracked leather, gold-leaf titles," others "freshly bound with bright crisp covers...not all ancient." These books are set aside on special shelves that go up into the shadows of the ceiling in the part of the store that Clay has come to call the "Waybacklist." Part of Clay's job entails writing detailed descriptions of the people who take out these volumes in a logbook, including the weather conditions, what they were wearing, and other odd details he might notice.  Although one of the conditions of the job is that he is not to look inside the books, when his roommate Mat visits and takes one down, human nature takes over and Clay takes a peek:
 "The two-page spread shows a solid matrix of letters, a blanket of glyphs with hardly a trace of white space. The letters are big and bold, punched onto the paper in a sharp serif. I recognize the alphabet -- it's roman, which is to say normal -- but not the words. Actually, there aren't really words at all.  The pages are just long runs of letters -- an undifferentiated jumble." 
Clay is perplexed: "For this, Tyndall and the rest come running in the middle of the night?"  Alongside the strange people and the even more peculiar books they take out, Clay takes it upon himself to help Mr. Penumbra get more regular customers in the shop with some marketing techniques, including a coupon he creates.  This offer brings Kat, a nerdchick who works in data visualization at Google, into the store, and his growing infatuation with her (and his own curiosity about what is in the books) eventually spurs Clay to use certain technological tools available to her to investigate the mysteries within these volumes.  Their inquiries and their results will take them on a literal fantasy quest that will eventually lead them to an organization whose members have spent their lifetimes in their own search for meaning.

So having said that, you might believe that this is just another bit of modern-age fantasy, but there is some serious stuff afoot here, and it's highly obvious in the way Sloan has drawn his characters. Aside from the readers who carry out books from the Waybacklist at Mr. Penumbra's store, Clay's roommate Mat, for example, works as a special effects designer/builder for Industrial Light and Magic, where he makes props, part of the "dwindling tribe of special-effects artists who still make things with knives and glue." He's currently working on a jungle monster made of living plants.  But his major project, "Matropolis," is currently all over the roomies' livingroom, a "scaled-down dreamscape, a bright glittering hyper-city made with scraps of the familiar." In short -- he builds tangible representations of things made out of materials that you can touch.  On the other side of the fence is Neel, another friend, whose work involves 3D computerized representations of famous women's breasts, and Kat who is in thrall to the concept of Singularity as a means by which "programmers ...get to upgrade the human operating system" to solve all of the world's problems so that humans can live forever.   Kat and her cohorts at Google  find that data is the only real ingredient necessary for experiencing the world along with the requisite machines needed for encoding and decoding.  Is there a future where these two sides can co-exist?  Think of this question in terms of books and their authors, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore enters the stream of current discourse on the future of the biblioverse. At least that's how I understand it.

The book ranges into the farfetched, and is one of those stories where coincidences mount  and somehow, like in the fantasy-quest story Mr. Sloan brings to his novel, things just simply have a way of working out to the good of all.  Normally these sorts of obvious turning points in a book make for the inevitable eyeroll and leave me inwardly cringing, but the novel is witty and clever while being serious at the same time, and the aura of mystery around it appeals to my fascination with trying to get at the bottom of what's really going on.  It is, in short --  with reservations including the necessity of the epilogue --  a delight to read, even if you are over 30. 

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