Before his first novel was published this month, San Francisco writer Robin Sloan spent years in the tech world, holding jobs as Current TV's "futurist" and managing media partnerships for Twitter. According to book critic Oscar Villalon, it's not surprising that Sloan's first novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" reads as a celebration of both digital and print culture.
By: Oscar Villalon
How you respond to Robin Sloan's first novel, a modern adventure tale set among a secret bibliophile society and a circle of young Internet-savvy friends, will depend a lot on how you feel about the digital age we live in. If you're of the opinion that our wired world is omnipotent and unimpeachable, Sloan's story may give you pause with its quiet skepticism. And if you're a hide-bound partisan of paper tomes, this witty, generous book may persuade you that Kindles, iPads and Google Books are not the demons you have imagined them to be.
The attraction of "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" mainly rests in how its gregarious narrator, Clay Jannon, enthusiastically conveys the incredible possibilities to be found in combining all things print with all things digital. Clay, just one of the many people under 30 waylaid by the recession, finds himself having to take a job at a used bookstore somewhere on the seedier end of San Francisco's North Beach. Working the graveyard shift of an always open but rarely patronized bookstore, Clay soon finds himself enmeshed in a strange organization in which his sprightly, elderly boss, Mr. Penumbra, plays a significant role.
Various eccentrics come in to check out one-of-a-kind, beautifully crafted books that appear to be unreadable. They're all written in some kind of code, and the cracking of these codes pushes these night owls, and eventually Clay, into ferreting out what special knowledge may be revealed. We come to learn that readers have been trying to break these codes for centuries and if decoded, nothing less than the secret of immortality will be revealed.
Clay reaches out to his friends and brings in their expertise in everything from model making to data visualization, forming a geek fellowship of sorts, one on an incredible intellectual quest. Sloan does a fine job of keeping the caper aspects of his novel both bouncy and suspenseful, and the story's payoff makes sense in a poetic yet grounded way. That and Clay's agreeable personality, the kind of ingenious, cheerful guy you want by your side when seemingly all hope is lost, would alone make "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" an engaging read.
But it's Sloan's ideas about where we might be heading that make his novel worth pondering long after the entertainment ends. Here we see how collaboration across all fronts can form creative communities in ways inconceivable before the Internet. And, inadvertently, raises unaddressed questions of who may be left out.
Most of all, Sloan winningly shows how print and digital cultures aren't mutually exclusive. "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore," from the book's physical design to its riffs on type font, coding, sci-fi and fantasy books, and Skyping, serves as a hopeful reminder of that.