Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Pro and Contexts: Robin Sloan's "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore"
As I made my way through Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, the debut novel by Robin Sloan, I felt slightly confused by my own reading tastes. On the surface, I enjoyed its layout and ever-increasing plot devices, even though it shares a thematic, atmospheric similarity to Ready Player One, a book I disliked. I'm not sure if two books constitute a trend, but given the sheer enthusiasm for both titles, I get the feeling that "geek lit" is becoming a thing. Of course, no matter what the subject or overall theme, if the writing isn't good, an entire concept can collapse. In Ernest Cline's case, the writing was poor, and on top of that, I'm someone who doesn't have any affinity for 1980s or video game fanaticism. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, however, is full of subjects and ruminations that I find endlessly fascinating: the uneasy relationship between physical and digital books; the vanishing landscapes of independent bookstores; digital archiving and the still-growing potential of the web; and so forth. While I had issues with Sloan's writing style, this book was a rare example of an enjoyable text that carried me along by the audacity and complexity of its plot, even if the writing suffered at times.
The book follows a young man named Clay, whose job as a web designer is on hold thanks to the recession. In a state of panic, he takes a job as a night clerk in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Penumbra is an older, kindly, eccentric man, and very quickly, Clay realizes that there's more going on besides bookselling. Sales are minimal, and he's required to keep a detailed log of the elderly customers who come in at night, requesting titles from a mysterious collection housed at the top of the store. There's a method in their book requests, and Clay eventually sets out to crack the code. By chance, he meets Kat, a hacker/Google employee who, with assists from Google's vast networks and algorithms, helps him discover the system behind the customers' book selections. The mysteries keep piling up. The bookstore turns out to be one of many fronts for a secret underground literary society dating back hundreds of years, with various texts supposedly containing secrets to wealth of potential revelations. Without spoiling the work, there's also a mystery behind the original templates for the Gerritszoon font, the role of a classic science fiction author, and a villainous member of the secret society. While these wildly diverse plot threads might seem like too much, Sloan actually handles them quite carefully.
I'm going to assume that Sloan has worked as a bookseller at some point in his life, since he slightly romanticizes and nails the observations that come with the territory. The ladders reaching up to the top of Penumbra's bookstore are exaggerated quite well. I've worked in a few bookstores that have these ladders, and the temptation to use them is never lost on the customers. They look a lot bigger than the actually are, especially if you've never used them. Sloan takes this concept and expands it for the sake of the story--the ladders stretch up higher than normal.
"Now I'm the night clerk at Penumbra's, and I go up and down that ladder like a monkey. There's a real technique to it. You roll the ladder into place, lock its wheels, then bend your knees and leap directly to the third or fourth rung. You pull with your arms to keep your momentum going, and in a moment you're already five feet in the air. As you're climbing, you look straight ahead, not up or down; you keep your eyes focused about a foot in front of your face and you let the books zoom by in a blur of colorful spines. You count the rungs in your head, and finally, when you're at the right level, reaching for the book you've come up to retrieve...why, of course, you lean (Sloan 11)."
As I mentioned, the novel also contains studies of the divergence between print and digital. When Kat brings Clay to the Google campus, there are some somber realizations in the conversations.
"A tall Googler named Jad runs the book scanner. He has a perfectly triangular nose over a fuzzy brown beard. He looks like a Greek philosopher. Maybe it's just because he's wearing sandals.
'Hey, welcome,' he says, smiling, shaking Kat's hand, then mine. 'Nice to have somebody from data viz in here. And you...?' He looks at me, eyebrows raised.
'Not a Googler,' I confess. 'I work at an old bookstore.'
'Oh, cool,' Jad says. Then he darkens 'Except, I mean. Sorry.'
'Sorry for what?'
'Well. For putting you guys out of business.' He says it very matter-of-factly.
'Wait, which guys?'
Right. I don't actually think of myself as part of the book business; Penumbra's store feels like something else entirely. But...I do sell books. I am the manager of a Google ad campaign designed to reach potential book buyers. Somehow it snuck up on me: I am a bookseller.
Jad continues, 'I mean, once we've got everything scanned, and cheap reading devices are ubiquitous...nobody's going to need bookstores, right (Sloan 89)?'"
Worlds consistently collide within the story. If they don't collide, there's a definite sense of "out with the old, in with the new." This doesn't refer solely to books and written content. Neel, one of Clay's childhood friends, is the CEO of a web and graphic design firm (specializing in digitally accurate representations of women's breasts--this is played for cute geek jokes far too much). Clay observes the office, which used to be an old firehouse. He imagines the old world and the new one with its differences and similarities. On a very positive note, a lot of Sloan's observations aren't played for any kind of nostalgia, nor do they pander to people who are immersed in today's digital age. While some of the themes are obvious, there are moments of quite observation.
"His home serves double duty as his company's headquarters. Back when San Francisco was young, Neel's place was a wide brick firehouse; today, it's a wide brick techno-loft with fancy speakers and superfast internet. Neel's company spreads out on the firehouse floor, where nineteenth-century firemen used to eat nineteenth-century chili and tell nineteenth-century jokes. They've been replaced by a squad of skinny young men who are their opposite: men who wear delicate neon sneakers, not heavy black boots, and when they shake your hand, it's not a meaty squash but a limp slither. Most of them have accents--maybe that hasn't changed (Sloan 115)?"
Robin Sloan has a staggering knowledge of how the internet has shaped our contemporary lives, yet the emphasis is on real human interactions. The mysteries are solved through conversations, an audio cassette tape, and human ingenuity. The digital aspects help, but actual though processes save the day. Again, the novel is compelling in its balance. However, the writing style suffers, not to the point of bringing down the story, but enough to be tiresome. Clay's narration is full of asides that attempt to infuse a casual humor throughout. This comes on the heels of a conversation I had with a customer last night at my bookstore--balancing humor and substance is very tricky. It's rare to read a genuinely funny book that has substance. Sloan's writing style dangles on the edge--at times, he comes too close to being outright distracting, filling Clay's thoughts with needless asides. When he first meets Kat:
"Kat's phone makes a bright ping and she glances down. 'Oh,' she says, 'that's my bus.' I curse the city's public transit system for its occasional punctuality. 'I can show you what I mean about the time-series stuff,' she ventures. 'Want to meet up sometime?'
Why, yes, as a matter of fact I do. Maybe I'll just go ahead and buy her the Tufte book. I'll bring it wrapped in brown paper. Wait--is that weird? It's an expensive book. Maybe there's a low-key paperback edition. I could buy it on Amazon. That's stupid, I work at a bookstore (Could Amazon ship it fast enough?) (Sloan 54)."
But on the flip side, the more fantastical elements of the plot are rendered quite well. When Sloan writes about the meeting of the secret society, it's mysterious, outlandish, yet fully fits into the plot. The reader is caught up in the unfolding revelations, therefore elevating the fantasy side of the novel. We completely accept the idea of a library hiding in plain site, inhabited by a group of readers and decoders.
"There are people around the tables, sitting and standing, men and women in black robes just like Deckle's, talking, jabbering, arguing. There must be a dozen of them down here, and they make it feel like the floor of a very small stock exchange. The sounds all merge and overlap: the hiss of whispers, the scuffle of feet. The scratch of pen on paper, the squeak of chalk on slate. Coughs and sniffles. It feels more than anything else like a classroom, except the students are all adults, and I have no idea what they're studying.
Shelves line the chamber's long perimeter. They are made from the same wood as the beams and the tables, and they are packed with books. Those books, unlike the tomes on the tables, are colorful: red and blue and gold, cloth and leather, some ragged, some neat. They are a ward against claustrophobia; without them, it would feel like a catacomb down here, but because they line the shelves and lend the chamber color and texture, it actually feels cosseted and comfortable (Sloan 144)."
Perhaps my critiques of Sloan's style border on nitpicking, but there's so much good in Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore that the weak writing and asides mar what could have been a tremendous novel. Sloan has written a complex mystery that bridges the gap between the book culture and the digital age, as well as creating a great mystery world with some genuine suspense. However, it seems like writers exploring the geek culture do too much pandering to their audience. This isn't a complaint about the content, but rather the execution. Sloan writes several passages and moments with great humor, but he falters when he's trying too hard to highlight the obvious. He knows his stuff, he knows how to explore the balance between vastly different communities and subcultures, and if he had injected a bit more subtlety into the work, it could have been so much better. Therefore, I recommend this novel, but with some slight reservations. It's thought-provoking and entertaining (another rare combination), but falters at times. Once Sloan tightens his narrative and lets some aspects speak for themselves, I'm sure his future books will be that much better.
Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Copyright 2012 by Robin Sloan.