5 December, 2022

LitStack Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour BookstoreMr Penumbras 24 Hr Bookstore
Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Release Date:  September 24, 2013
ISBN 978-0-374-21491-3

I love it when a friend recommends a book for me to read.  “I thought of you when I read this,” Ron told me as we watched our dogs gambol at the dog park, “It’s about a bookstore and all sorts of weird things happen – it’s right up your alley.”

He was right.

At the start of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Clay Jannon is a San Francisco web designer who, like so many others in our day and age, is out of work.  One night by chance he passes by a 24 hour bookstore with a Help Wanted sign in the window, and on a lark he ventures inside.  Immediately he is taken back by how narrow – and tall – the store is.

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.  Thy whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.

But Clay pretty desperately needs a job, so when an older, slight man dressed in a light blue cardigan (it matches the color of his eyes) appears and identifies himself as Mr. Penumbra, Clay inquires about the late shift job opening.  “Have you ever worked in a store before?” Penumbra asks.  When Clay admits he hasn’t, the old man doesn’t bat an eye.  “Prior experience in the book trade is of little use to you here,” he states.  Inquiry two:  “Tell me about a book you love.”  Immediately Clay responds with a series of books that he has adored since childhood:  The Dragon-Song Chronicles.  The old man smiles, this obviously was a good answer.  Then the final question:  “But can you climb a ladder?”  When Clay demonstrates his willingness to lean, he has the job.

The adventure begins.

It turns out that Penumbra’s is more than a bookstore; or rather, it’s not much of a bookstore.  The inventory is hit or miss, and among the missing are the blockbuster best sellers, the popular titles, the works that might actually bring in a profit.  What’s also missing are customers.  Weeks will go by with Clay barely making any sales.  It doesn’t advertise, it has no internet presence.  How does the bookstore even stay in business? he wonders.

But there’s another side of the bookstore.  Almost like another whole bookstore.  Those “other” books are stacked behind and above the books that are for sale, and they are obscure.  More than obscure, it’s like they don’t exist – not on Google, not in the Library of Congress.  And they are requested by a second set of customers, who arrive with “algorithmic regularity”.  These customers, who are almost always older, know exactly what they need, and they always return a book when requesting a new one.  It’s like a mysterious lending library of a secret society.  And Clay, who has too much time on his hands on the night shift, starts to get curious.

Of course there is a heckuva lot more to the story, and it flies by at a galloping pace.  In fact, it’s the loose and energetic details that really let Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore shine.  Not just the dusty bookstores and dark, secret societies, but also the forays into high tech, with involvement by the data visualization corps at Google headquarters, Industrial Light and Magic artist expertise, and even the involvement of a cyber Robin Hood who goes by the handle “Grumble”.

And all that is tied together by some wonderful supporting characters:  friend-due-to-a-chance-meeting hacker girl/Googler Kat; roommate Mat, who is building a model of a city that he calls Matropolis made out of boxes and cans, paper and foam, which is slowly overtaking the living room; geeky best friend since sixth grade, D&D gamer Neel, who now owns his own company that does 3D scanning, and has become pretty darned well off, money-wise, but remains a nerd at heart.  And that’s just the start.

So what is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore?  Is it a modern fellowship-quest type of adventure?  A dark and cryptic secret society mystery?  An ancient versus modern morality tale?  A sort of coming-of-age fable for a slightly more mature age?

Yes, yes, yes and yes.  It’s all that, and more.  Wittily written, with an openness and an unabashed sense of wonder, but also a growing realization that life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to despite the best of intentions, it’s a book that feels familiar and yet moves in unexpected directions in equal measure.  (As a side bar that illustrates this – and a kind of visual SPOILER, I guess – I was startled when I turned off the lights in my room after reading the book, and the cover glowed!  The dust jacket graphic, which had seemed somewhat understated and even a bit dull, was actually sneakily fantastic and completely, totally, unexpectedly made out of glow-in-the-dark book spines.  It fit in perfectly with what happens in the book, and in an absolutely magical way, which was also perfect in regards to the book.  It made me so happy, I had to go grab my daughter right then and there and show it to her!)

Ron – you were right.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was right up my alley, wonderfully so, and I’m delighted that you recommended it to me.  And now I’m recommending it to all of you.  Grab a copy, sit back, and enjoy!