What happens when a startup veteran decides to write a novel? You get something like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a hip sort of paean to San Francisco and its brainy, fast-paced technology scene.
Robin Sloan wrote the book while working as a media manager at Twitter, and in fact it was a tweet that piqued his imagination and inspired the entire story, he told the Times: “I was walking down California Street in San Francisco … when I saw that a friend of mine had just tweeted: ‘Just misread a sign for a 24-hour book drop for 24-hour bookshop. My disappointment is beyond words.’ It just made me smile. I wrote it down…”
Before Twitter, Sloan (who self-identifies as a “media inventor”) worked at Poynter, a school and website devoted to pondering the future of journalism, and at Current TV, an inventive media company co-created by Al Gore. It’s no wonder, then, that his protagonist, Clay Jannon — almost certainly a partial stand-in for Sloan — is something of a startup guy himself. When the book opens, Clay, a designer and art school grad, has just lost his cushy job at NewBagel, a San Francisco bagel business “founded by a pair of ex-Googlers,” where he was doing marketing and new media, redesigning the logo, and running the Twitter account (@NewBagel, of course).
Looking for work, Clay wanders into the antiquated, charming bookstore of the title and lands a job after the owner, Mr. Penumbra, asks him vague questions like, “What do you seek in these shelves?” and, “Tell me about a book you love.” These are the kind of questions that lit nerds love to hear and read about, and indeed, this novel is like candy for book geeks: an engaging, quirky book about people who love books, written by a young first-time novelist, with a dash of intrigue and a hyper-modern dose of brand names and new technologies.
What Penumbra becomes is a Da Vinci Code-like puzzle mystery, and in so doing it may lose some of those romantic booklovers who become enamored with the first half’s fun, dreamy plot. (Guy walks into a narrow, too-cool-to-be-true bookstore, gets a job but isn’t permitted to look at the old books with weird spines that mysterious customers come and take out for free, and he also meets a cute girl, and he has these radical, brilliant friends, and OMG it’s all so awesome!) The mystery, however, is too strange and compelling to be off-putting: For decades, a sect of readers known as the Unbroken Spine has been poring through strange texts in small bookstores all over the country in order to solve a series of puzzles. The cult boasts an underground library in New York City (yes, it opens through a hidden panel) and a conservative, villainous leader named Corvina.
In order to help solve the various mysteries, Clay employs technology like Google’s book scanner, a number of techie tools and apps, and the customer database in a very old desktop computer. Indeed, Penumbra’s language is that of tech, even down to its zingers (which are often very funny, but occasionally corny). “I’ve resigned myself to sitting at the front desk, but I can’t stop squirming,” Clay narrates as he prepares to covertly remove a sacred item from Penumbra’s shop. “If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now, and translated it into five languages.”
Clay also enlists the aid of two key secondary characters, both of them even more archetypal of San Francisco’s business world today than Clay is. The first is Neel Shah, a high school dork turned CEO (these are far from lacking in Silicon Valley and beyond) who started a company that has already made him hundreds of thousands and is likely worth millions. Sloan’s description of Neel’s company, Anatomix, is both hilarious and highly plausible: “He developed the first version of his breakthrough boob-simulation software while he was still a sophomore at Berkeley, and shortly after that he licensed it to a Korean company that was developing a 3-D beach volleyball game … [it is now] the de facto tool for the simulation and representation of breasts in digital media… If you are in the business of simulating a boob, Neel’s software is the only serious option.”
Listen to an excerpt from the Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore audiobook
From Macmillan Audio; read by Ari Fliakos
The second is Kat Potente, a romantic interest for Clay, who works at Google and is dying to be put on its Project Management team, a constantly rotating, randomly selected cadre of special Googlers working on über-cool ideas. She and Clay get into a compelling conversation about the future of technology in which Kat tells him, “I think the big change is going to be our brains… I think we’re going to find different ways to think, thanks to computers… The writers had their turn, and now it’s programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system.” Clay reflects, “I am definitely talking to a girl from Google.” With exchanges like these, it’s easy to imagine every programmer, designer, marketer, executive, and coder at every buzzy startup in California — Zynga, Instagram, Airbnb, Pinterest, just to name a few — reading this book with delight.
Yet Penumbra is so modern as to be almost jarring at times. At one point, a customer comes in looking for Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which came out barely one year ago (“He was so handsome,” she marvels at the cover). Hadoop, an open-source software tool for handling big data, is gaining buzz in the real world right now and figures prominently in the book. All of this makes for an interesting, age-old discussion about authors that wish for their novels to feel more timeless, and thus stay far away from mentioning brands or technologies like Gchat, versus those who don’t fear references that so obviously bind their work to its time. It is clear which camp Sloan occupies. Clay goes on a date via video chat. Penumbra, curious about e-readers, obtains a Nook, Kindle, Sony e-reader and Kobo all at once.
And indeed, Sloan’s novel is unlikely to become a modern classic of literary fiction, but he isn’t going for that. Penumbra is imaginative and fun, and especially so for those who watch, write about, or work in San Francisco or the rest of the tech world at large. Sloan has taken the magic of the Harry Potter series and blended it with the dark, cultish plot elements of a classic like The Secret History to come up with a fun, great read that is very much of the moment.
In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the magic is technology, and all that it can do already and will do in the future.