Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
Only one thing is really certain in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: its author, Robin Sloan, is a bit obsessed with Google.This fixation is only slightly less perplexing than the story told in Mr. Penumbra, a book that lands up halfway between the pulp conspiracy theories of Dan Brown and the borderline-pretentious Masonic mysteries of Umberto Eco. What Sloan has managed to produce is a lighter, more readable version of Possession, maintaining the same sense of passion for knowledge that Byatt’s characters displayed while retaining a distinctly modern sensibility.
Set in the crucible of global technology — San Francisco’s Bay Area — Mr. Penumbra is narrated by Clay Jannon, a recently unemployed website designer who finds himself working the night shift at a mysterious (eponymous) bookstore. This is — of course — no ordinary bookstore: despite having stacks of books that stretch up into impossibly high ceilings, it barely stocks anything that readers are looking for, and is visited by a number of eccentric characters who come in and out constantly, borrowing obscure tomes to research peculiar topics.
Clay is required by his employer, Mr. Penumbra, to document every detail of these visitors: the clothes they are wearing, the time at which they come to the store, the exact level of excitement they demonstrate and just how verklempt they are, in a giant ledger. By hand. This is hardly what you expect as a viable career choice for someone whose most recent job was as a website designer for a bagel start-up (founded by two ex-Googlers, really). And given that the job of working at Mr. Penumbra’s doesn’t exactly require much brainpower, it’s little surprise that a young, hip web designer with a fairly active imagination starts wondering about who his clientele are and just what it is that they’re doing.
When Clay finally gives up the struggle to mind his own business and opens up one of the books on the shelves, he finds that it’s written in code; one volume is described as “a solid matrix of letters, a blanket of glyphs with hardly a trace of white space.” From there, it’s not a huge leap to figure out that the borrowers who perambulate in and around Penumbra’s are trying to crack this code and discover the secret within. Fortunately for his mental health, Clay winds up meeting Kat, an employee at Google — of course — who specialises in data visualisation, and who in addition to becoming his sort-of girlfriend, starts helping him decipher the code.
San Francisco is both the oddest and the best setting for Clay’s story. It’s a city where human perfection is isolated and identified by Google’s recruitment choices: where Clay’s best friend has made his fortune via a company that does computer renderings of the human body; where it’s not considered terribly odd for one person to attend a date via videoconference and be carted about a room full of strangers on a laptop screen. But San Francisco is also the best locus for a mysterious little shop that is the antithesis of all this technology and fast-paced internet insanity, with its paper books that aren’t available in electronic editions and its oddball crew of research scholars who seem to — gasp!! —use paper and pen to do their work.
The novel kicks into high gear when Clay and Kat manage to figure out one of the mysteries of the bookstore using technology at (say it all together now!) Google. This is only the starting point though; the solution leads them right into a much bigger mystery that centres around, of all things, medieval typography. But the plot is almost ancillary to the central conceit of this book. What Sloan focuses on — frequently at the expense of characterisation — is the question of how technology, no matter how old or new, affects our humanity. And it does: whether the invention of the printing press, or the digitisation of the world’s books, Sloan sketches out the impact of ‘progress’ on how we not only see the world, but also how we interpret it.
The best rendering of this engagement is in the epistemological death match that takes place between Google and its über-confident cyber-army vs. a bookstore and its regiment of elderly ink-and-paper scholars. The new clash of cultures that Sloan writes — hipster tech-nerds backed up by computer mainframes taking up against robed ascetics with their fiddly abacuses — is wonderfully apt in today’s day and age. There’s something particularly satisfying in the fact that neither are especially successful. Sloan walks a line between loving and lambasting the internet behemoth that is Google; one of his best comments is about how one of the projects in progress at the Googleplex is the development of “a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris.”