Book Club: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

I’ve been trying to fall in love for awhile now. There have been a lot of false starts (sorry, Marcel Proust)  and unfulfilled promises (I’m coming for you, too, Fun House) and disingenuous-but-attractive stand-ins for the real thing (Swamplandia!). I just haven’t read anything that I love in awhile. I thought it was different with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but I was wrong.

It started, as it so often does, in a bar.
It started, as it so often does, in a bar.

The premise of the book is strong and sounds just like something I’d love: a modern fable, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore features an out-of-work Silicon Valley designer, Clay, who takes a job at a mysterious bookstore to make ends meet. There’s more to it than he initially suspects, and he starts to delve into the mysteries contained within. A Googler, the titular shopkeeper, and a start-up success story join up with our hero Clay on his quest to find answers. We get a little bit of typographical history, half of a love story, and a geeky backlog of affection for the sci-fi novels of the 80s. I don’t want to give a lot away, so I’m going to stop here on plot summary. Suffice to say, the setup is clever: you get some self-conscious winks toward Never-Ending Story structure,and a couple biting asides about start-up culture, and then you’re off.

My litany of woe begins thus: there’s a tech solution to every problem our hero faces. In a book that was sold to me as a love letter to the written word, I feel like it leaned on the god from the machine, if you will. Reading it produced the same sensation you get when you watch CSI:Miami. “That’s not how computers work,” you say. “Scanners don’t do that. You can’t make pixels.” This was like that. A lot like that. For a long time. In contemporary literature, technology is sort of like its own character, but you have to shape it carefully or it becomes a golem, no longer willing to do your bidding. Robin Sloane did a good job talking about cell phones and laptops in a way that won’t feel immediately dated (hello, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but he let them do too much, and soon they were running around, terrorizing me.

As much as technology was a developed character, most of the others were not. Clay’s maybe-girlfriend, Kat, feels like a plot device more than a person, a handy doorkeeper to Google. Oliver, another employee at Mr. Penumbra’s eponymous shop, has a small cast of satellite characters that attend to his grad student universe; I never even caught their names. Roommates are given unnecessary subplots that are never revisited, and I didn’t care if they were or not. Clay and Neel, his childhood best friend, were likeable enough that I wanted them to succeed, I guess, but I didn’t feel that strongly about it one way or the other. The person I cared the most about was Aldus Mantius, a long-dead Italian typographer of yore: his designs look like a tattoo I’d love to have, and the accompanying message, festina lente, is something that I tacked up on my board at work. Mantius, though, is a specter, and doesn’t have any dialogue, for obvious reasons. Sloane gets so deep into his role as fabulist that he forgets himself; everyone feels like a symbol or a stock character, and no one ends up being that compelling.

I’m done maligning now. I wanted to love this too much, and that was probably my own undoing. The first hundred pages were so fresh, so clever, that I didn’t do the necessary background check. It was just too good to be true, and the undergirding structures couldn’t hold the weight of the narrative.

Next week, I’ll be reading this. Let me know if you want to join!

Have you read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore? What did you think? Am I completely off base? Not even in the ballpark? Let me have it.

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