“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan manages to pull readers in enough to confuse them and spit them back out with bigger questions than when they began the novel, which in this case is a good thing.
Based in San Francisco with adventures to Google Headquarters in the Silicon Valley and an underground library nestled near the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is everything readers want in a novel: adventurous and thought-provoking with a secret society that aims to crack an ancient, coded text and the tease of an unsuccessful romance.
The main character Clay Jannon is a graphic designer out of work who stumbles upon a job working the night shift at a 24 hour bookstore. It doesn’t take long for Clay to realize that there is an undercover operation afoot as customers do not purchase books, but rather rent them at odd hours of the early morning. Despite being a character with hamster-like tendencies, Clay’s keen observations send him and his friends into a transcontinental pursuit for answers with his employer, Ajax Penumbra, leading the way.
“Mr. Prenumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” provides more than an enjoyable read as it addresses bigger cultural issues such as the future of the relationship between print and digital media. Published in 2012, the novel honors the real-world complications of the future of information as society straddles on the cusp of change between print and digital technology. An ironically literal relationship is born as the bookstore, a safe house for print that hosts the key to unlocking the novel’s mystery, serves as the location where Clay’s digital inspiration is fed.
True to the detective fiction genre, Sloan references “The Maltese Falcon” by Dashiell Hammett, another San Francisco based detective novel, several times and also alludes to Sherlock Holmes: “I realize that the big reveal really ought to happen in a smoky parlor, with the sleuth holding his nervous audience spell-bound using only his voice and his powers of deduction.” The self-referential quality of the text is a trope of the detective fiction genre and serves to set the scene for the novel’s mystery. The reader’s experience is limited, however, by Clay’s first person narrative which prevents simultaneous development in other areas of the novel.
While Sloan works to keep the reader engaged with rapid plot developments, the first person perspective limits character growth and ultimately makes the novel one-dimensional. The first person narrative does, however, allow the readers to sink into the text as they are ingratiated into Clay’s thoughts providing readers the feeling that they are on their own journey. While Sloan successfully transports readers across time and place, a third person narrative would not only allow the novel to breath with more options for plot-twists but create more clarity for the reader. However, Sloan is crafty in ways to develop the text despite the narrative limitations such as his use of a nestled narrative with the fictional trilogy, the “Dragon Song Chronicles”, which serves an instrumental piece in unlocking the novel’s mystery.
Overall, Sloan’s ability to weave together a complicated plot is impressive but narrative limitations leave the reader feeling confined. However, once the “case” is solved at the end of the novel, it is clear that Sloan’s development of the main character is as impressive as his ability to tie up the novel gracefully.