[In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.]
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a romp of a first novel by Robin Sloan. It’s a perfect book for booklovers who lean toward the mysterious and fantastic, blurring genre lines throughout to afford readers a marvelous time.
The novel begins when Clay Jannon, the first-person narrator, is responding to an advertisement for a clerk in a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. Clay was educated as a graphic artist, but he’s finding jobs scarce since his work designing a logo and a website for a bagel bakery and acting as the “voice” of @NewBagel on Twitter — definitely a new economy sort of job. When the bakery went bust along with the rest of the economy less than a year after Clay took the job, he was left jobless with a very slim resume. So the help wanted ad in the window of the bookstore seems like a godsend, even though Clay questions whether the bookstore is a legitimate employer — after all, legitimate employers advertise on Craigslist, not in their windows, right? Clay suspects that “24-Hour Bookstore” is a euphemism for something distasteful.
He’s wrong about that, but he’s right that there’s something weird about the place. For one thing, there are almost no customers. In fact, there are almost no books, either, at least not the normal sort of books you would expect to be on offer. The bookstore is oddly shaped, too:
[I]magine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up — three stories of books, maybe more.…
The shelves were packed close together, and 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. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.
A dedicated group of individuals visit the store to borrow books from the special collection housed in those ominous shelves; they never pay any money, and they ask for the volumes by the name on the spine, which appears to be simply the last name of the author.
Mr. Penumbra hires Clay for the night-time shift, from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. He tells him not to look into any of the books in the back of the store, the ones on those high shelves, but only retrieve them for customers. And Clay must also keep precise records of all transactions, including not just what book was given to whom, but the time, the customer’s appearance, the customer’s state of mind, and anything else that Clay might observe, down to the material of which the customer’s coat buttons are made. It’s all very strange, but it’s an easy enough job.
But Clay can’t resist looking into those books. And there he finds… gibberish. And then Clay becomes curious about the mysteries in the store and tries to unravel them. It is a trip that will lead him deep into data networks and across the country, and give him a fair bit of insight into himself.
Sloan’s novel is about the intersection of books and technology, a subject of intense concern to many of us who love books in all their many forms, books as art, books as objects, books as repositories of information, books as sources of pleasure. The writing is lively and the plot is deliciously complicated. The novel contains both joy and melancholy, but ultimately, it is forward-looking, about how anyone can find his or her own place in the new world in which we find ourselves.
It may seem strange that I see this book as straddling genres; there are no spells, no magic, no wizards (excepting always those who are wizards with technology, which mostly means Google employees in this novel). But it has the air of fantasy, of the mysticism inherent in books, of the magic of puzzles and those who devote their lives to solving them. And, of course, there’s a secret society; maybe that’s enough. Or maybe I just loved this book so much that I want everyone to have the joy of reading it. Take my word for it, fantasy fans: you’ll like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.