January 30, 2013
The first thing you might notice about Robin Sloan's captivating first novel is that its dust cover glows in the dark – very handy, should you want to find Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore during an attack of insomnia on a cold, dark January night. The second thing that will become abundantly clear is that the ancient and enigmatic Mr. Penumbra's quaint little emporium, located next to a strip club in San Francisco, is no ordinary bookstore.
But that's just the beginning; by the time you've finished this book, you'll discover that Sloan's aim is to convince us that the ancient world of books and the modern world of computer technology can be partners in our quest to understand the mysteries of life, and that friendship, love, and healthy doses of curiosity, ingenuity, and persistence will help us decode these mysteries. To accomplish his mission, Sloan has created a fast-paced tale where the border between reality and fantasy flexes and blends, and a trio of geeky friends becomes what the narrator, Clay Jesson, dubs The Rebel Alliance, with Mr. Penumbra as their Obi-Wan Kenobi, in an attempt to flummox Marcus Corvina, the executive director of The Unbroken Spine, a 500-year-old fellowship of readers devoted to decoding the codex vitae of its founder, Aldus Manutius, a 15th century Venetian printer. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The story begins when Clay, an out-of-work web designer (thanks to the current recession), stumbles into Mr. Penumbra's bookstore and lands a job as its night shift clerk. He gets the job because he can swarm up a ladder like a monkey. Ladder-climbing dexterity is a must, since the narrow little bookstore's shelves are three stories high. Unlike the piles of used books for sale at the front of the store, the books on these shelves, which Clay thinks of as the Wayback List, are part of a curious lending library, available only to a small group of passionate readers who are members. Clay is not allowed to examine the books on the high-rise shelves, but eventually his curiosity gets the better of him. He takes a peek and discovers that all of these books are written in code, their pages covered by a solid jumble of letters.
To while away his time at work, Clay creates a computerized 3-D model of the bookstore and its contents, and he shows the model to a chance visitor to the shop, the cute and brilliant Kat Potente, in an attempt to impress her. Kat, who works for Google as a data visualization specialist (whatever that is), is obsessed with the idea that computers will help their programmers discover the key to immortality. When the two young computer geeks become romantically involved, Kat borrows Google's immense resources to help Clay crack the Wayback List's code.
Clay's two visits to the Google campus are among the most fascinating scenes in the book. At the sprawling Google campus, where, with the impish humor that pervades the book, Sloan has the Googlers developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris, Kat harnesses the powers of countless computers and solves The Founder's Puzzle – a feat which normally takes novices of The Unbroken Spine years to accomplish -- in a matter of minutes. Thus, although he hasn't earned this rite of passage, Clay becomes a member of the unbound, the second rung in The Unbroken Spine's hierarchy.
When Mr. Penumbra learns of Clay's accomplishment, he disappears. The worried Clay enlists the help of Kat and his boyhood friend, Neel Shah (now the relatively wealthy owner of Anatomix, a firm that specializes in computer simulations of the boobs of famous movie stars) to track down his mentor.
Now the setting shifts to Manhattan, where one of the libraries of The Unbroken Spine has been carved out of the bedrock beneath the city, and in whose Reading Room black-robed members try to decode The Founder's aforementioned codex vitae. Unlike Kat, they believe that this book – not computers – holds the key to immortality. Sloan also takes us on fascinating side trips to a bar for bibliophiles, a techie boutique hotel, and then back across the country to a Knitting Museum in California and a warehouse in Nevada that houses unclaimed museum artifacts.
The author's imagination is boundless. Not only does he treat us to a gaggle of quirky and appealing characters and a bunch of interesting settings, but he also invents an imaginary typeface, Gerritszoon, named for its designer, Griffo Gerritszoon, who worked with his friend, Aldus Manutius. Sloan also creates a collapsible cardboard scanner, which Clay sneaks into the underground library in order to copy Manutius's massive tome.
Now admittedly, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is not perfect. If, like me, you are not a techie, you may be mystified by a lot of the computer stuff, but I found that this did not mar my enjoyment. Granted, the plot is convoluted and contains a few too many convenient coincidences and an unnecessary epilogue, but hey, it's a first novel, so you can't expect perfection. Despite these reservations, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read.
I'm sure you're wondering whether Clay and friends discover the key to immortality, and if so, what that is, but I'm not telling. You'll just have to visit Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and find out for yourself.
Jane Julius Honchell, who resides in Glenburn Twp., is a well-known features writer and columnist. She is an associate professor at Keystone College, La Plume, where she serves as Director of Theater. See Jane Read appears monthly in The Abington Journal.