Robin Sloan’s debut novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is a fast read and a clever book. The narrator, Clay Jannon, is a victim of the “great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century.” He’s been laid off from his web design job at a specialty bagel company run by a pair of ex-Google employees. After the economy collapsed, the ex-Googlers closed their business and hightailed it to Costa Rica. Cash-strapped Clay wasn’t so lucky: he’s forced to take a clerk job at the titular bookstore—with its esoteric used inventory, inscrutable owner, and round-the-clock hours. Clay is hired to man the night shift solo.
Eventually he uncovers the truth about Ajax Penumbra’s struggling San Francisco bookshop: that it’s a front for a secret society of scholars called the Unbroken Spine. That group has been working for centuries on a massive decoding project. Although normal, everyday customers arrive at Penumbra’s to buy a Tolkien novel or a relegated copy of Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography, the more interesting clients are the scholars who borrow books from what Clay calls the Waybacklist—obscure, singular works that are being used for mysterious purposes. At its core, the bookstore is really a lending library for a society whose members are working on a cross-continent collaborative effort to discover the key to immortality.
One of Clay’s day-to-day responsibilities, meanwhile, is to keep a logbook on customers, noting their appearances, moods, borrowing habits, signs of potential injury—effectively tracking them, but using paper to do so. At one point though, Clay does “borrow” the logbook (after having a replica built, to take the original’s place on Penumbra’s shelf temporarily) and brings it to Google, where he and his girlfriend, an ambitious Google “genius” named Kat Potente, have it scanned. Clay then uses that scanned data to solve the so-called Founder’s Puzzle. When Penumbra finds out about this caper, he’s delighted and impressed. But there’s a bigger prize: the immortality riddle at the center of the Unbroken Spine. To solve that one, Clay must surreptitiously scan the Founder’s codex vitae—an encrypted book by fifteenth-century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius. That tome is located in a secret subterranean library, carved into the bedrock of New York City. Clay plans to use Google’s massive processing capabilities to analyze that scanned text corpus in order to crack the immortality code. As with each of his “nerdy” exploits, he requires assistance: he recruits his girlfriend, Kat; Neel Shah, a boyhood pal who is now a tech millionaire (he made his money on Anatomix—a software that can create highly realistic digital representations of breasts); Penumbra himself; and several others. Their hijinks lead them to Manhattan, Mountain View, the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, a storage facility in the Nevada desert, and back to San Francisco.
A lot happens along the way to the Manutius scanning project; Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is a hyperactive and plot-driven book. In fact, it’s really a young adult novel for adults. And it works fairly well as one. There are many flaws, however. They include: character motivations that sometimes don’t make sense, stilted dialogue, and unnecessary interjections of interior monologue. There is also too much corporate shilling and Google-love for my taste. (Though Clay does make fun of Google at least once, speculating that they’re developing a renewable energy made from hubris.) Clay product-name-drops a lot, too, and he harps on many well-worn signifiers of Silicon-Valley/Alley, new-media, clubby coolness: Apple Inc., Industrial Light and Magic, Googleplex, data viz, digital books, venture capitalism, Ruby programming, etc., etc. There is much about that culture that deserves sharp satire or criticism, but that’s not what Sloan’s book is. It’s instead a celebration of all that, as well as a featherlight adventure surrounding digital and print innovation. Nothing wrong with this, necessarily, and there is certainly an audience for the subject. But, without giving too much away, I do believe that some targeted readers might be disappointed with the ending to the novel. I was not. I found its lower-tech coda satisfying, even though it was incongruous with the tone and action found throughout the book. In the end, in a novel buoyant to the point of giddiness, some answers come from unexpected places.