Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore ~ Robin Sloan

  • Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
  • Author: Robin Sloan
  • Genre: Mainstream
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: Olga, Guest Reviewer
  • Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:  The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.

I loved this book. Its plot is simple. A young graphic artist Clay, after he lost his latest marketing job, starts working for a 24-hour bookstore, owned by a mysterious Mr. Penumbra. The owner is not the only mystery of Clay’s new job. The shop has two distinct sections. The smaller (much smaller) section sells books; the bigger section, stuffed by dusty odd tomes, is visited regularly by some shady characters, who use the shelves as their library. Intrigued by the strange goings on, Clay decides to investigate, and his friends help him. What they uncover… would be a spoiler, so I won’t tell it here.

Anyway, the investigation itself is what the story is all about. The author maps an adventure-filled trip for his hero at the intersection of printed books and the internet, Google and secret societies, hundreds-year-old cult and coded messages. And all those story lines converge together into the printing font Geritszoon.

What a long, sophisticated name for a font. I didn’t know it, so of course, I Googled it. Surprise! What came out of that Google search were a bunch of interviews with Robin Sloan and book reviews for his novel. Still I couldn’t believe the font was fictional. It felt real to Clay, the protagonist, and it felt real to me, the reader.

I also Googled Clay’s favorite writer Clark Moffat, whose fantasy trilogy, The Dragon Song Chronicles, plays such an important role in the story. I love fantasy and I hoped those books would be real. I wanted to read them, but no such luck. Again, I was disappointed. The writer was fictional too.

In his tale, Sloan put together a delightful romp of a literary quest, a light and funny pilgrimage between books and the cyberspace. The novel starts slowly, like a gentle tide, but despite its quiet pace, I didn’t want to put it down. I wanted to know how Clay’s investigation was progressing. By the time the tale picks up momentum, about the middle of the book, I couldn’t stop reading at all.

I can’t pinpoint a single aspect of this book I loved the most. Nothing seems outstanding. The plot is okay. The characters constitute a nice bunch of young and old folks but nobody special. Even the protagonist is an ordinary young guy, and the descriptions are so-so, not especially vivid. But that seems to be the secret of this book. With not one of its component sticking out, the whole is an exceptionally balanced masterpiece of a supremely talented writer.

The range of emotion the story inspired in me was amazing. I laughed. I contemplated. I followed my curiosity into consulting a dictionary and checking out Wikipedia. I shook my head in exasperation. I gasped in surprise and waved my hands in frustration, and this one book was the source of it all.

I’d like to finish this review with a few verbal pearls, witty and deceptively simple, scattered liberally among the pages.

The hero loves fantasy but he is wondering at the genre tropes:

Why does the typical adventuring group consist of a wizard, a warrior, and a rogue, anyway? It should really be a wizard, a warrior, and a rich guy. Otherwise who’s going to pay for all the swords and spells and hotel rooms?

Aldus Manutius, one of the first printers in the 15th century, plays an important role in the novel. Manutius was the genius who ‘invented’ the concept of a pocket book and the Italic type font. This one was real: I Goggled his name. But there is a quirky myth attached to this historical personage, at least according to one of Sloan’s characters, Mr. Penumbra:

“When Aldus Manutius died,” he says quietly, “his friends and students filled his tomb with books—copies of everything he had ever printed.” 

Sloan’s dry humor is irresistible. When Clay sends a text message about one of the books he is investigating, he writes:

‘…the target is one of the most important books in the history of printing. In other words: this might be bigger than Potter. Any help?’

I take a breath, check three times for typos, then submit the post.

He checks for typos in a text message!? And that is a fellow young enough to muse later:

It [my life] feels like an eternity since I started school and a techno-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco. My phone couldn’t even connect to the internet back then.

A pure, undiluted joy of a book. Recommended to anyone: because we all love reading.

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