Gregg Sapp's Reviews > Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
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Indie bookstores are a delight. It is always a distinct pleasure to discover one in some odd, off the beaten path urban alleyway, in a basement on a college campus, in between a gas station and a barbershop in a small town, or in whatever other literary ecosystem that is capable of supporting them. Each is totally unique, not so much in the book stock they carry as in the ambience they evoke.

Robin Sloan’s boldly imaginative novel, “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty Four Hour Bookstore,” is as weird as any of them. Clay Jannon, an unemployed web developer, stumbles upon it during a long walk through old neighborhoods in San Francisco, and he enters to answer a HELP WANTED sign. Mr. Penumbra is an avuncular old eccentric whose job interview consists of one question: “Tell me about a book you love.”

Clay works the overnight shift and rarely sees a customer. And no wonder – the bookstore has few books actually for sale. The stock consists primarily of one-of-a-kind, unpublished tomes containing pages upon pages of indecipherable code. Despite Penumbra’s admonition that “You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes,” Clay cannot abide the temptation. Trying to make sense of them, he begins to build a 3-D model of the store’s holdings.

By chance, the lovely and talented Kat Potente, a whiz-bang Google programmer, drifts into the store one day while waiting for a bus. Trying to impress her, Clay shows her his model. Kat asks, “Is there more data we can add to the visualization?” When they take one of Penumbra’s encoded logbooks to Google’s analytics lab and turn a supercomputer loose on it, strange patterns begin to emerge from the text. But they’ve only touched upon the arcane secrets contained in these books.

The more they learn about Penumbra’s books, the deeper Clay, Kat, and other various friends and benefactors become enmeshed in the rituals of the cultish Order of the Unbroken Spine, whose members and their progeny have been working for 500 year to crack the code contained in the pages of those books. The incentive is that, as they believe, the fully translated body of work will reveal the secret to eternal life.

Throughout, the storyline, like Clay himself, has one foot in the world of Google mega technology and another is arcane works of print on paper. This is not so much a contrast as it is a juxtaposition of two complementary realities. Bibliophiles and computer geeks actually have more in common than it might seem at first. They both thrive in a social niche that is insular and esoteric, and which affords infinite levels of complexity for their edification and amusement.

Sloan creates a fabulist tale that tracks close enough to reality to function in part as satire, in part as fantasy, in part a quest adventure, as well as a kind of love story. Clay Gannon is as believable and relatable a character as you’re likely to find in any book so far over the top. Thus, readers can take special pleasure in his victories over all the ostensible experts and geniuses. Mediocrity triumphs!

Finally, but not incidentally, I found “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty Four Hour Bookstore” in a local, hole-in-the-wall bookstore in Olympia, WA. It was on a shelf labeled “Sky’s Favorites.”

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Reading Progress

March 18, 2020 – Started Reading
April 6, 2020 – Shelved
April 6, 2020 – Finished Reading

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