When page and screen collide.
Working in an independent bookshop is one of those jobs that people tend to make assumptions about. Incorrect ones. Like, that booksellers get to sit behind the counter and read all day, or that we’re all like Bernard in Black Books, drinking red wine and freely abusing ignorant customers (I wish). Alas, the reality is not nearly so interesting, particularly when you work in a shop like mine, where the computers are from circa 1985 and all the returns have to be pulled by hand (don’t even ask).
But it’s nice to hold onto this fantastical image of the quirky indie bookshop, and Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, the mysterious place at the centre of Robin Sloan’s charming and imaginative debut novel of the same name, brings it vividly to life; albeit with a very modern twist.
What’s special about Sloan’s novel is how seamlessly it blends old and new: it’s a mish-mash of Internet gadgetry and ancient artefacts, typefaces and printing presses, ereaders and leather-bound tomes, an old-fashioned quest narrative and a modern love story—and, somehow, it all fits together like Bernard and a bottle of red.
Twenty-six-year old Clay Jannon is an affable, unemployed nerd with a passion for fantasy fiction and a talent for web design. When ‘the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century’ costs him his marketing job with a company called NewBagel, he’s at a loose end—until he finds Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when he’s wandering the streets of San Francisco. While it’s ignominiously located next to a neon-signed bar called Booty’s, in ‘a euphemistic part of town,’ Penumbra’s isn’t what it seems: inside, rows and rows of dizzyingly tall shelves are stacked with ancient volumes that appear to be filled with code.
Of course, after a mysterious encounter with old Mr Penumbra, who talks a little bit like a wise old wizard in a quest novel (‘I am the custodian of this place’), Clay gets the job of night clerk. From 10 pm until 6 am, he mans the desk, lending the ancient books of code to an odd group of customers who appear to be part of a secret society. It’s not long before Clay’s curiousity prompt him to start investigating: what do the symbols inside the books mean? What ancient mystery are Penumbra and his strange clients devoting their lives to solving? And will it get Clay a date with Kat, the hot girl from Google who wanders into the bookshop one fateful night?
Clay’s quest is a wildly imaginative and rather Potter-esque trip that encompasses everything from Gutenberg to Google HeadQuarters, a place where employees’ food is personalised with vitamins and natural stimulants. With the aid of his friends and colleagues, whose talents range from data whizbangery to esoteric archaeological knowledge, Clay begins to unravel the truth behind Penumbra’s bookstore and the part it plays in the mysterious Festina Lente Corporation.
At the heart of this journey all is the eternal human yearning for immortality, a desire that even the cleverest technology can’t give us (yet—Kat proudly tells Clay that Google is working on it via a project called Google Forever). But, as in any good quest novel, what turns out to be most important isn’t the symbols or the coveted objects, but the people who seek them, and the passions and ideas that bring them together.
In this unsettling climate of closing bookshops, and the growing popularity of ebooks and online retailers such as the Book Depository, you might not think that there could be any kind of union (imagined or not) between the technology of the future and the dusty bookshelves of the past. But Sloan has created such a delightful and fun fictional universe, and such a lovable cast of characters with which to populate it, that his ideas about how to embrace the future without losing or forgetting the past feel both inspiring and plausible. While his heroes can’t solve their mystery without the might of Google, they’re also lost without what Google employees amusingly refer to as ‘old knowledge’ (OK) and ‘traditional knowledge’ (TK): what’s existed in people’s heads, and in the pages of books, for centuries. “Imagine if we could make all that OK/TK available all the time, to everyone,”’ one of Kat’s colleagues muses. At the heart of Clay’s quest is the desire to unite this knowledge with the leaps and bounds of modern technology—to bring the two together without losing something important, and indefinably human, in the process.
Is it actually possible? Who knows. For all that it touches on a very timely and topical issue, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore has a lovely lightness of touch, and it resonates with Sloan’s obvious passion for the printed word. It’s a fantasy with its head rooted in reality, but it’s no less enjoyable and inventive for that—and no less a resounding testament to why we love stories, no matter what form they take.