After Clay Jannon loses his web design job to the ravages of the recession, he walks San Francisco’s streets in search of help wanted signs. He spies a 24-hour bookstore sign seeking HELP WANTED Late Shift ~ Specific Requirements ~ Good Benefits. Jannon says “Now; I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. . . the place next door was called Booty’s and it had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.” Still, he walks into the store and finds “no bodices, ripped or otherwise. . . there was a stack of dusty Dashiell Hammetts on a low table. That was a good sign.” He meets Mr. Penumbra, the custodian of the place and tells him he’s looking for a job.
“Tell me,” Penumbra said, “about a book you love.”
Thus Jannon becomes the night clerk, the one who rolls a ladder down the floor, climbs it, and then leans to grasp the volumes requested by a small band of seekers who visit the store. The odd visitors “arrive with algorithmic regularity. They never browse. They come wide-awake, completely sober and vibrating with need.” They don’t purchase; they seek and check out volumes looking for pieces to the puzzle they’re trying to solve.
Jannon’s job description also requires that he log the appearance and manner of each person entering the store. Soon he decides to engage his tech-savvy friends in a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and the volumes they borrow and thus to solve the mystery they all seek. They take their information to Mr. Penumbra and the merry band makes a pilgrimage to New York in pursuit of clues at the underground headquarters of the group overseeing Mr. Penumbra’s work.
Sloan imbues the novel with clever banter, just enough to keep the book light, as in his description of Jannon’s girlfriend upon their arrival: “Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.”
Occasionally the novel’s cleverness pulled me away from the storyline but my affection for Clay and Mr. Penumbra always drew me back to the fairy tale unfolding before my eyes.
This book takes Saint-Exupery’s “what is essential is invisible to the eye” and turns it slant for the 21st century. It’s a joyful exploration of friendship, life, and work done well that reminds us that the secrets of life are there if we’ll just bend a bit and lean toward them.
Summing it Up: If you’re looking for something new and different, yet as familiar as the tattered copy of the first book you ever loved, then Robin Sloan’s blend of bookish secrets, early fonts, and advanced Google search engines will engage your imagination. Enigmatic Mr. Penumbra and hip, young Clay Jannon will find their way past your internet-challenged attention span and into your heart.
Footnote: Sloan knows that book buyers today want compelling reasons to purchase books in hardcover so Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore's cover glows in the dark.
Rating: 5 stars
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Dessert, Sushi, Book Club
Publication date: October 2, 2012
Author website: http://www.robinsloan.com/penumbra/
Reading Group Guide: http://media.us.macmillan.com/rggguides/9780374214913RGG.pdf
What Others are Saying:
I rarely quote an author in a review but Robin Sloan’s words say it all:
I wrote this book because it’s the one I wanted to read, and I tried to pack it full of the things I love: books and bookstores; design and typography; Silicon Valley and San Francisco; fantasy and science fiction; quests and projects. If you love these things too, I hope and believe you will enjoy a visit to the tall skinny bookstore next to the strip club.
The Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/21564531
New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/books/review/mr-penumbras-24-hour-bookstore-by-robin-sloan.html?_r=0
Los Angeles Times Interview: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/17/news/la-jc-robin-sloan-mr-penumbras-24-hour-bookstore-20121017