Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda Books: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour-Bookstore

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour-Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Time on to-read list: two years

Reason for not picking it up until now: A number of just-okay reviews, with a book whose subject guarantee a certain amount of automatic five stars among bibliophiles.

Reason for finally picking up: It was sitting on the shelf under another book I just got off the shelf and read recently . I didn’t want to leave it out (due to my inanimate object’s deep feelings obviously).

Verdict: This is one of those times I really see the virtue of the curated book-reviewing community I’ve collected around myself, for sure.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour-Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a book with a perfectly charming premise and a number of flaws. The premise, is, of course, what landed it on my to-read list nearly two years ago, and, I’d imagine, the list of many another bibliophile. The book centers on the new night-shift employee at a 24-Hour-Bookstore in San Francisco, who has taken the job after being laid off from his tech-start up in the Great Recession of the late aughts. He works from 10 pm to 6 am under the elderly, mysterious Mr. Penumbra and his even more mysterious clientele. For, while there is a (very idosyncratic and eccentrically chosen) bookstore at the front of his establishment (which only the occasional stripper from the club next door buys), his real customers come for the good stuff in the back, which Clay (our protagonist) is told never to look into. They appear at all hours of the day and night, borrowing books and returning them in fevers of excitement. And of course, like with any plot where there is a big red button one is very explicitly NOT to press, the day comes when Clay opens one of the books in the back. And then we are off to the races, finding ourselves in the midst of a hundreds of years old cult of book-worshippers, secret puzzles and codes and a ragtag group of characters that stretches from your expected conservative cult leaders to modern-day tech CEOs and programmers, all thrown together by the draw of solving a puzzle.

It sounds like a premise that should work- it really is a new twist on the literary cult mystery, trying to see what it might mean for a generation with new ideas and new technology. Sloan definitely creates a true-to-life feeling about how many younger people would process finding something like this in their life- the way that many characters treat this as a Saturday-night trivia exercise rather than the serious undertaking any other book would present it as (the part where they are on the major, dramatic part of their “quest” and the two characters with actual jobs/lives are taking meetings, going to work and obsessed with stuff on their phones and only keeping half an eye on the main mystery felt really true). I also liked how Sloan really stared pretty unflinchingly in the face of the idea that computers can do decades of human work in minutes or hours and hinted at some of the different kinds of knowledge that that offers- is it “cheating”? She definitely refused to indulge in a great part of the romanticism that a lot of us book-lovers cherish for our favorite hobby. I also appreciated that the main female character was allowed, at least a few crucial points, to not conform to being just a wish-fulfillment for the main character.

But unfortunately, that’s about it for the positives. None of which has anything to do with the most important parts of a book. All of which I felt this book failed at or at the very least did a very lackluster job of showing. Let’s start with the plot, which I never found in the least suspenseful. The main character finds a problem and solves a problem within pages- and usually it’s not even by virtue of his own ingenuity (he even admits this towards the end of the book, that everything gets solved because he brings the problem to someone else). Even as the plot ramped up towards the end, there was never any mad dash or suspense- we’re flying quite comfortably on Jet Blue, thank you, and able to go about our normal lives for 3/4 of the time we’re on this “adventure” (both other main characters use vacation days and branch offices in order to go on the journey- it’s a pretty disappointingly responsible and middle-manager way to go on a quest). There’s no sense anyone is ever really in danger (ooooh no, what if the book nerds discover you’re in their secret library during unapproved hours??? I wonder if he will be able to escape the grasping arms of octogenarians who have spent their whole lives underground bent over large books???)- the greatest danger is the occasional fear of embarrassment. And, and this is something of a spoiler, but honestly you won’t be surprised by the time you get there…. the climax is told by means of a powerpoint slideshow. I don’t know if there’s a more depressing way for an author to try to indicate triumph. And let’s not even get started about the fact that a solid 100 pages of this read like an advertisement for how great it is to work at Google.

I also found myself reading this book from a great distance. It’s told in the first-person, and the book we’re holding is supposedly written by the narrator. However, despite deploying these multiple ways of hooking your reader into a personal relationship the main character, I still found myself reading the book at a great distance. I never felt that moment of, “I feel you, bro,” or found myself sympathizing for his struggles. Perhaps because the man himself never really let me see him beyond the surface- he told me about wanting to punch guys his girlfriend spent time with, or feeling surreal about some of the things he’s noticing, “Like, OMG, isn’t this so weird,” and being too much of a sissy to open the books he’s not supposed to open (though he takes credit for it later). I think this was at least in part due to an odd choice the author made to have his thoughts written indistinguishably from the general description and narration of plot, without italics or some other notice to indicate that they were thoughts, which meant that I would often read his thoughts without the feeling they were supposed to be read with. I did occasionally like Kat, especially towards the end of the novel when Sloan really emphasized how much of her own person she is, rather than a function of the book’s technology vs. books narrative. But Neel’s whole thing (and his virtual boobs company) felt like a weird, absurdist element thrown in to make the book feel more postmodern. He belonged in some other book by Franzen or Foer, but he definitely didn’t belong here. And Sloan really half-assed the mysterious, ancient appeal of Penumbra and the whole cult- she made them dusty shams past their prime whose ancient rites and rituals were easily taken apart by technology.

Which, I suppose, would probably be true of a lot of organizations like this (especially if they are technophobic and don’t change with the times-lookin’ at you, DaVinci Code). But then… what’s the point of this book? I don’t get it. Was centuries of work and dedication really there for an unemployed dude in his late-twenties who needed a self-esteem boost? That makes me want to side with the grumpy old cult members who are pissed that you took the meaning out of their hobby. I really thought, actually, after all the hints it gave us, that the book was going to go with “it’s all about the journey, not the destination” at the end and I was prepared to accept that as part of a growing-up shift in priorities for our hero, and when it went with what it did instead in the end, I didn’t even know what to do with it. Because you’re trying to tell me this is a book about friendship instead? And how valuable it is? Really? But you spent this book having your main character use his friends and manipulate them into doing what they wanted, so… how does that make sense? The examples of older friends in this book appear delusional and out of touch with each other, willing to use their friendship to try and twist minds and hearts. And don’t even get me started on how you stuck Kat on as a pretty bow on the end, when the entire book had made the case that that would be a horrible idea for everyone involved. Even the whole effort to “save” Mr. Penumbra didn’t feel real- I never understood why this guy was so motivated to help him, given that they had barely any interactions, he judged him constantly and he had known him for less than a few months. The work to establish the relationship, or at least the allure, of Mr. Penumbra, was never done.

I can’t even process this as a deconstruction of all of those literary conspiracy, secret society type books out there, because if your only point is “well technology would destroy that in a second,” then not only are you missing the point of that entire genre by dismissing it with a surface clever observation better suited to a New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs column than an actual, serious, book length treatment. I also don’t really think satire was the point in the end- too many pieces of the puzzle were left intact- they were just ineffectively drawn to begin with. So I guess… in the end I don’t really understand what this book was for. Who was it supposed to appeal to? You’ve annoyed bibliophiles, you’ve alienated a lot of readers over thirty, never mind serious readers of fiction and character studies who like to attach to your characters… and I don’t understand why.

Why are you ruining the fun without having something useful to say about why you’re doing it? I guess that’s what I’m asking. I left this book still not understanding. If you’re aiming for anything like satire of or comment on a genre and still expect the target audience to buy it, you better tease with love and understanding and be so devastatingly accurate there’s nothing they can do about it, and then you had better let them know that you get them and you’re one of them at the end. (Please see Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for reference on how to do this in beyond brilliant fashion.)

And all you had was a powerpoint slideshow at the end?

I’m sorry to all you neglected books who deserve to be pulled out of eternal middle-of-the-pile land, but this book was not one of you.