Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore follows the story of Clay Jannon, a computer programmer who finds himself unemployed in the era of the Great Recession. Desperate for a job so he can make a simple living, Clay stumbles across a strange little bookstore. On a whim, he decides to apply for a job. But after being hired, Clay realizes that there’s something strange going on in the bookstore; the owner, Mr. Penumbra, is rather eccentric with a weird set of rules. There are virtually no customers- perhaps the reason is that most of the books in the store are completely unheard of. Even Google can’t find them. As events unfold, Clay uncovers that the secrets and mysteries of the bookstore form a large network even outside its walls.
The title of this book suggests that Robin Sloan has written a book that is a must-read for book-lovers everywhere. For the first half or so, I’d say that it was exactly that. Full of strange details and whimsy about this unusual bookstore- largely abandoned with one or two customers every day. It’s a sharp reminder of the tragedy that has befallen our society: people simply do not care for bookstores. This is a recurring theme throughout the novel; people who read avidly are considered eccentric, old-fashioned in this day and age. Sloan treads this concept carefully yet masterfully; the integration is seamless while also being explicit enough for even the most clueless readers to catch.
This is a thematic novel, made obvious from the nature of our protagonist. Clay is a narrator who many of us can relate to, even if we’re not smart web-designers; he’s grown up in a digital age where technology forms a big chunk of his life, but he loves to read and the “smell of books.” He’s part of the generation that’s trying to make sense of the bridge perched in uncertainty between the old and the new – or books and technology, respectively. Sloan gives this narrator a refreshing voice, simultaneously humorous and grounded in the moment. Full of literary and digital pop culture references, the novel draws the reader in with the sheer absurdity yet possibility of it all. Moreover, the justice Sloan does to both sides of the debate was both commendable and thought-provoking. The people obsessed with the old ways are too rigid to recognize that technology has means of doing things much quicker, while the skeptics of the new-era-sect fail to recognize that computers are not invincible.
Unfortunately, much of this balance was lost going into the second half of the book. You know when you take a Physics class in college because you’re a Doctor Who fan and think learning about time travel and black holes academically will be the single greatest thing in the world, only to later learn that it’s mostly talk about atoms and numbers? It’s disappointing, which is how I felt about this book. The second half of the book delves deep into the technological, digital aspect of the world. The bookstore and the larger context of books is left behind to make way for a mystery/adventure that almost feels gimicky considering the tone of the first half of the book. There was so much technical talk in the second half that I found myself either getting lost or simply not bothering. It’s unfortunate that a book I was enjoying so much went into a downward spiral so steep that I had to skim the last few chapters.
Overall, I think this novel is a wonderful piece of thematic literature, which discusses a hot topic in a sensitive, humorous light while remaining fair to both sides of the debate. From a story point of view, I feel that this book would be rather enjoyable if people knew what they were getting into. After all, had the Physics student known that the class would be mostly numbers may have enjoyed it much more had he not been caught totally unawares.