Book Shelf: Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
Reviewed by Brooke Lehmann
Robin Sloan's career has seen him centred in the world of social media – once working for Current TV, a successful media company in the U.S, and also for Poynter and the eminent Twitter enterprise – mainly working in the sphere of media development.
So it's no surprise that the debut novel of the San Franciscan resident, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Text Publishing; $29.99), takes on a defined technological tone, nor that in its infancy it was a 6000-word e-Book. What's most interesting about this novel, though, is the seamless union between technology and books, something which has rarely been done so successfully.
When questioned about how he achieves such a harmonious relationship between the two, Sloan simply states, "Here's the trick: books are technology. Always have been."
The inspiration for Sloan's novel piqued after a intriguing tweet from a friend of his in 2008 – 'Just misread '24hr book-drop' as '24hr bookshop' – after which, he found himself curiously plagued with the concept of a 24-hour bookstore.
"I think many stories begin with a question. In my case, the question was, 'What would a 24-hour bookstore look like anyway?'” he says. “Why would such a thing exist?”'.
Well, as it happens for Sloan, a 24-hour bookstore becomes the façade of a secret society that has been in the works since the 1400s; the enlightening time of Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press.
His male protagonist, Clay, is an intellectual yet slightly apprehensive guy in his mid-20s, whom Sloan describes as, "nervous, but never insecure – he's not always the boldest person, but he knows his place in the world, and he's comfortable there."
Upon losing his media and design job at bagel empire 'New Bagel', due to current recession, Clay is in dire need of a new job. As luck would have it, on a stroll through the city of San Francisco, Clay stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore, with a 'help wanted' sign in the front window.
After being shown the ropes by Penumbra himself, and henceforth made to prove his impeccable talent for climbing ladders and searching out requested novels in the remarkably high shelves of the store, Clay is instantly granted the job and is issued with the night shift, with two strict instructions:
1. Always be on time for his shift – never arrive late, and never leave early;
2. No browsing, reading or inspecting the certain mysterious novels shelved high up in the bookstore. Of course, these rules are not followed.
And so, we discover that these certain unique novels (which Clay can't seem to track down in any number of Google searches), and the peculiar customers that consequently come to borrow them, are not all they seem to be and so, the adventure begins.
The dialogue as presented by Clay is endearing and infectious and Sloan admits that Clay's voice is most definitely his, however, "There's plenty of selection and distillation at work there."
The novel almost takes on an Indiana Jones undertone, with adventure and intrigue lurking around every corner. The narrative is fluid and amusing, and although the plot has a mature element to it, the tone remains innocent and imaginative.
Sloan perfectly captures the romantic ideal of the bookstores he thinks will always have a market: "The best ones are places for people to gather and hang out; places to sit and think and dream in public; places to find not just the book you were looking for... but the book you didn't know existed."
Sloan, who describes himself as a media inventor ("I like to design not just the content, but the container, too"), states that we can definitely expect another novel from him in the future. However, his heart is still firmly planted in what he classes his 'native country', the internet, and will continue to further delight us with his musings online.
A wonderfully crafted intellectual adventure, Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore's refreshingly new plot exhibits a truth which escapes the most of us; that books and technology are one and the same.