Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, Atlantic Books, RRP£12.99 / Farrar, Straus & Giroux, RRP$25, 304 pages

One of the most unsettling lines in Robin Sloan’s entertaining techno-mystery romp is when a Google employee named Kat is asked how many books Google has digitised to date. She replies, without missing a beat, “sixty-one per cent of everything ever published.” Kat doesn’t find this factoid disquieting in the slightest. It is, after all, a remarkable accomplishment. But in the world of Sloan’s book this declaration of comprehensiveness is a direct challenge to an intangible quality that books have held within them for centuries: the capacity to be mysterious.

Clay Jannon is a young web designer in contemporary San Francisco who has been lifted up by the digital tide – he designed the award-winning website for an upmarket bagel company run by ex-Google employees, only to be dumped into unexpected unemployment when the designer bagels fail to sell. (“The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and would not go quietly.”)

Clay inhabits a tech-heavy west-coast world in which everything is filtered through the internet: “Whenever I walked the streets of San Francisco, I’d watch for HELP WANTED signs in windows – which is not something you really do, right? I should probably be more suspicious of those. Legitimate employers use Craigslist.” One day he stumbles upon the peculiar bookshop of the title, and meets the mysterious Penumbra, “the custodian of this place”.

Once installed as the store’s night clerk, Clay finds respite from the fast-moving digital world among the vertiginous shelves. He gets to know the few eccentric regulars who come to the store to borrow books – but never to buy them. The volumes they borrow, which do not appear on any internet database, are filled with arcane code that the regulars seem to be trying to break. But what are they trying to find out? And where did the books come from in the first place?

Clay decides to use the new technology in which he is fluent to uncover these ancient enigmas, in a battle that eventually pits the Kabbalistic cult of bookstore regulars against their modern cryptographic counterparts, as Clay enlists his Silicon Valley friends to help in his quest. The result is a battle in which it’s MacBook versus astrolabe, and skinny jeans line up against black-robed cultists.

Sloan’s book becomes an amusing riff on bibliophilic mysteries such as Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel, although it lacks their complexity. Despite the bells and whistles, this is a traditional mystery dotted with the trappings of technology.

Sloan, a self-described “media inventor” and former manager at Twitter, clearly knows his milieu, and is adept at displaying both the thrill of programming and the tactile qualities of a well-bound book. There are some acute insights into the lesser known trades and characters that make up the glistening high-tech world – Clay’s childhood friend Neel, for instance, has made his fortune writing “middleware” that can create the perfect digital breasts.

But such is the breathtaking speed of innovation in this environment that it is at times hard to tell what is intended as satire and what is not. For instance, Google Forever, a program committed to “life extension …organ regeneration, DNA repair” seems to have been intended by Sloan as a joke at the company’s grandiose pretensions. But the real-world news that Google recently hired Ray Kurzweil, a proponent of using technology to extend life to the point of immortality, makes Sloan’s Google Forever seem out-of-date.

The technological saturation can be a bit much; “If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now,” is clumsy. And the book hasn’t quite rid itself of the one-speed pace of its origins as an online short story.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was a critical success when it was published in the United States late last year, and it’s easy to see why. Sloan’s premise is intriguing. Where does the thrill of obscurity reside when feats of detective work that once would have taken years to complete now take mere milliseconds? “This is one of the things you learn at Google,” says Kat the Googler. “Stuff that used to be hard …just isn’t hard any more.” Sloan suggests that the answer might lie in places like Penumbra’s bookstore, where light and shadow, smell and touch, human eccentricity and imperfectness combine into something that a virtual business can supersede – but will never be able to mimic.

Get alerts on Fiction when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article