September 2012

Madeleine Monson-Rosen


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Clay, a design school graduate recently laid off from his job with a company making algorithm-based bagels, finds himself working in what he thinks is an out-of-the-way bookstore with an odd specialty: a back room of vertical shelves full of one of a kind books that Clay labels the "Waybacklist." It's a room of beautiful bound encrypted texts. "When I started working here, I assumed they were just all from tiny presses. Yes, tiny Amish presses with no taste for record keeping." The books of the Waybacklist represent the initiation rituals of a secret society. Mr. Penumbra's bookstore is a front for the Unbroken Spine, a Knights Templar of typography, minus the messianism, dedicated to solving cyphers and codes. The group's origins extend from sixteenth century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, who, according to this novel, left his legacy locked in an unsolvable code.

Clay's involvement begins when he uses a computer data visualization to solve a preliminary puzzle with the help of his Googler girlfriend Kat (this book is full of monosyllabically named characters; there's also Neel, Jad, Mat, and Raj). He "cheats" the game, exacerbates a simmering schism within the Unbroken Spine, and becomes leader of a group using technology to decrypt the secret society's holy of holies, the book of Manutius.

Conspiracy theories and novels both depend on plots, and there's something undeniably seductive, and undeniably engrossing, about explaining the course of history by means of the machinations of some secret society. The Crying of Lot 49 turns mail delivery into a giant conspiracy, and the culty, underappreciated FLicKeR did roughly the same thing for film. The obvious comparison, The Da Vinci Code, proclaimed "Everyone loves a conspiracy." In this novel, the secret society is founded on what Robin Sloan suggests is the common ground between book nerds and computer nerds: the typographical codes that both depend on.

This novel's strengths come through not when Sloan goes on at length about "data viz," or the Ruby programming language, or Google's algorithm for determining what individual employees should eat, but when the plot shifts into gear and Clay goes looking for the source of the conspiracy and the key to its original undeciphered code. Yet Sloan seems paradoxically embarassed about referencing genre plots, even though Clay's favorite novels, a fictional fantasy trilogy called The Dragon-Song Chronicles, play an important part in the plot of this one. Clay uses their shared affection for these books to coopt his friend Neel into his quest: "The party is forming, I say: I have a rogue (that's me) and a wizard (that's Kat). Now I need a warrior (why does the typical adventuring group consist of a wizard, a warrior, and a rogue anyway?)." I don't know if everyone loves a conspiracy, but I'm sure everyone loves a quest to overthrow one, especially one undertaken by a charmingly underprepared fellowship. Yet the story of that quest gets rushed, shouldered along by multiple deus ex machinas, while Mr. Penumbra tries to convince you that you need to be convinced that the Internet is not going to destroy books. "Books used to be pretty high-tech, back in the day."

Too much of the time, this novel tries to prove its books-as-codes analogy, implying that the worlds of computer code and literature have more in common than partisans admit. But Sloan is himself a partisan on the computer side. His own biography describes him, insufferably, splitting "his time between San Francisco and the Internet." Indeed, this book argues that in San Francisco, "we are in the Venice of this world. The Venice." Just as Venice was the center in the Renaissance information economy, dependent on the new technology of the printing press, Sloan argues, so Silicon Valley is the center of an economy dependent on the Internet. "He was an entrepreneur!" Mr. Penumbra says of Manutius. While The Dragon-Song Chronicles offers a Tolkein-esque defense of friendship, suggesting that adventures, and the more mundane struggles they allegorize, can be better managed by friends who depend upon and trust one another, Mr. Penumbra offers Google as its holy grail, "we'll form a consultancy," Clay tells us, "a new fellowship -- actually, a little company."

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore falters as a novel of conspiracy and secret plots, not because the goal of its quest is a consultancy, but because it is too heavy on codes and too light on plot, genre or otherwise. It's neither a fun, spooky, men-behind-the-curtain suspense novel, nor a serious reconciliation with the consequences for literature in a digitally mediated world. Media critic Friedrich Kittler lamented, "Under the conditions of high technology, literature has nothing more to say. It ends in cryptograms that defy interpretation and only permit interceptions." Cryptograms are all that Sloan sees in literature. When Mr. Penumbra describes the initiates of the Unbroken Spine as those who "read deeply," it turns out that he's not talking about reading, but rather intercepting, merely deciphering.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374214913
304 pages