by Ben Franks
Reading Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore isn’t hard once you fall in love with it. Sure, the language isn’t the most difficult thing in the world and the characters don’t have a whole lot of depth, but still Robin Sloan manages to make the characters real and the story significant.
Its significance for the great part relies on its topicality; the ongoing debate between book-lovers and digi-geeks and everyone in between about whether we should keep touching books or start Googling everything.
While things certainly seem to be moving towards the age when your phone can do anything your heart desires so you needn’t get out of bed in the morning – unless there’s bacon – Mr Penumbra is a refreshing twist on the debate.
To me, the novel paints an age where the digital world and paper can co-operate with one another, almost like a love affair. There will be ups and downs, but at the end of the day they need each other and the people around them will give them plenty of attention.
Clay Jannon, Sloan’s protagonist, is everyone’s favourite bum. He reads like we do, getting distracted by anything that pops up on your web browser unless we print it out and take it away to our sofas. Clay is the symbol of humanity’s urge to consume everything while being victim to our ever-shortening attention spans. With everything so readily available, if something isn’t interesting us in the first six seconds, everything else dazzling our eyeballs from the web page is suddenly much more appealing.
Clay is the person who draws everything together: he references role playing games so we can imagine the Penumbra’s Unbound/Bound book cult, and he references Star Wars to show just how much in the future all this digital lark actually is. However, both of these comparisons show two worlds built in fantasy – perhaps even divided into past and future as well – and as such the ‘present’ we all live in just seems like a transition age. We’re neither here nor there.
And so, in transition is compromise and co-operation. At the beginning of Penumbra the idea of co-operation seems alien. You have everyone who visits the bookstore focused on their individual puzzle building at varying levels; all the bookstore clerks work alone; and Mat’s art is very likely to aggravate housemate Ashley too.
Yet, Clay can only find the answer to the novel’s big mystery by bringing all the worlds together; Google meets book club, if you like.
As the novel goes on, Clay is the only one who truly embraces the idea of teamwork. He brings everyone together: the members of the cult, Kat and her Google buddies, Mat’s art (which Ashley ends up helping him take over the kitchen with), Neel’s boob company, and the clerks. As Clay says, it is not his skill set but his ability to bring everyone together and work as one – if only the paper age and digital age could have the same love affair, right?
Interestingly, Clay – who has a relationship with Kat from Google – struggles to see his relationship through to the end. Clay and Kat break down, mainly because Kat refuses to believe someone can’t do what Google can’t do, or at least it seems. Sloan appears to be suggesting the digital age, while as cool as Star Wars, is ignorant to the paper age’s perks, when, really, the paper age still has a lot to offer.
So while Kat goes off to be Project Manager at the world’s biggest brand, and Clay goes off to enjoy his small, charming bookstore, maybe the world in reality could bring paper and digital together and heal the rift between these two great ages.
Did you like Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore?
Found some nice links too:
- Robin Sloan is on Twitter.
- Where did it all start? Robin Sloan’s story appears on his website.
- It’s been reviewed in the New York Times twice!
Once by Roxanne Gay (14 Dec, 2014) and once by Janet Maslin (7 Nov, 2014)
- Marianne Levy, from the independent, calls Penumbra ‘an ode to musty bookshops and a call for digitisation’.
- Paper vs digital reading: The Guardian‘s Nick Harkaway says we have ‘bigger fish to fry’.