Farrar, Strous and Giroux, 2012
"People still like the smell of books."
Take a bookstore where the shelves go up so high that they seemingly fade into the shadows, a mysterious group of customers who come in to take books out but never buy anything, a reading room buried beneath the city of New York, coded secrets and the ever-increasing wonders of the technological scene, and you have the ingredients that put together Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a very cool fantasy-like novel that is simultaneously entertaining and thought provoking.
Set mainly in San Francisco, the main character is Clay Jannon, who has fallen on hard times and needs a job. He is by trade a web designer, and after the “great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century,” lost his job after the start-up bagel company he works for goes out of business. He gets by for a while, but he needs money and talking a walk one day runs across a bookstore with a help wanted sign in its window. The bookstore is located on Broadway ("in a euphemistic part of town") next to a place named Booty's; Jannon can't help but wonder what "24-hour bookstore" might be a euphemism for. But it seems to be on the up and up -- and after Jannon answers some rather odd questions put to him by the owner, Mr. Penumbra, he's got the job, starting at midnight and working until early a.m.. It isn't long until he notices that most of the customers, whom he says are
"exactly the kind of people you'd see in coffee shops, working through one-sided chess problems or solving Saturday crosswords with blue ballpoints pressed perilously hard into the newsprint,"
come to the bookstore to take out some very "unique" tomes, some with "cracked leather, gold-leaf titles," others "freshly bound with bright crisp covers...not all ancient." These books are set aside on special shelves that go up into the shadows of the ceiling in the part of the store that Clay has come to call the "Waybacklist." Part of Clay's job entails writing detailed descriptions of the people who take out these volumes in a logbook, including the weather conditions, what they were wearing, and other odd details he might notice. Although one of the conditions of the job is that he is not to look inside the books, when his roommate Mat visits and takes one down, human nature takes over and Clay takes a peek:
Clay is perplexed: "For this, Tyndall and the rest come running in the middle of the night?" Alongside the strange people and the even more peculiar books they take out, Clay takes it upon himself to help Mr. Penumbra get more regular customers in the shop with some marketing techniques, including a coupon he creates. This offer brings Kat, a nerdchick who works in data visualization at Google, into the store, and his growing infatuation with her (and his own curiosity about what is in the books) eventually spurs Clay to use certain technological tools available to her to investigate the mysteries within these volumes. Their inquiries and their results will take them on a literal fantasy quest that will eventually lead them to an organization whose members have spent their lifetimes in their own search for meaning."The two-page spread shows a solid matrix of letters, a blanket of glyphs with hardly a trace of white space. The letters are big and bold, punched onto the paper in a sharp serif. I recognize the alphabet -- it's roman, which is to say normal -- but not the words. Actually, there aren't really words at all. The pages are just long runs of letters -- an undifferentiated jumble."
The book ranges into the farfetched, and is one of those stories where coincidences mount and somehow, like in the fantasy-quest story Mr. Sloan brings to his novel, things just simply have a way of working out to the good of all. Normally these sorts of obvious turning points in a book make for the inevitable eyeroll and leave me inwardly cringing, but the novel is witty and clever while being serious at the same time, and the aura of mystery around it appeals to my fascination with trying to get at the bottom of what's really going on. It is, in short -- with reservations including the necessity of the epilogue -- a delight to read, even if you are over 30.
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