Thirty-something Clay Jannon’s friends have designed world-famous websites, advanced touch-screen interfaces, work at Apple, and run their own companies. Clay, on the other hand, has won an award from the San Francisco AIGA chapter for his re-designed logo for NewBagel, a unsurprisingly stillborn business started by two ex-Googlers who thought anything they touched would turn into gold.
The ex-Googlers naïveté leads to Clay’s unemployment, without a severance package but with a Mac Book and a Twitter account. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is where Clay next finds employment, and the adventure of his life.
Clay Jannon is an easy narrator for this tale. He’s self-deprecating, humorous, and the “right” combo of nerd and risk taker—making sure to remind us that we’re not reading Hunger Games or The Hobbit or Harry Potter. No larger than life warriors or heroes here. Just everyday folks. Eclectic, highly intelligent, eccentric, and out-of-the-box creative folks, but not out of the realm of belief by earthly, grounded Everyday Joe and Jane.
Almost immediately upon landing his job and starting the graveyard shift, Clay suspects that the store is about much more than books. The adventure begins—part miscues and serendipity, part Da Vinci Code-style secrets(minus 200 pages of minutae). Or more aptly, assertions of secrets and promises to answer “our greatest question.” I put this in quotes because once I read what Penumbra believes to be our greatest question, I was disappointed. But then I adjusted my headspace and carried on.
Author Robin Sloan is gambling on the hope that readers will take the proverbial leap and believe that Clay, who keeps reiterating his skepticism (like he’s trying to remind the reader, “It’s them, not me,” even when he plays the hero and takes all the risks), is willing to go along on this quest because, ya know, it’s fun and, well, the girl is beautiful. Sigh. Okay.
We’re drawn into a centuries-old (at least in literature) odyssey to unveil layer after layer of a riddle, the end result being, the believers believe, the most important knowledge that man can possibly acquire. The final showdown between technology and the neural processing, nonlinear human brain is, I guess, a thumbs up for the human mind’s continuing relevance in today’s flood of increasing artificial intelligence capabilities, but the ultimate reveal is unenlightening and a rather unimpressive cute-sweet moment.
Perhaps other readers will feel affirmed and comforted by the outcome of the group’s quest and Clay’s detective work, and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an easy read, perfect for a few hours on the patio, at the park, or while sunning at the beach read. Sloan writes well, his characters stand out individually and are diverse, engaging, and fun. Newsday has called Sloan “a literary wizard” and the New York Times Book Review calls the novel “eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence.” I agree with enjoyable and full of warmth, but would rethink “eminently.” The epilogue is on the tidy side, though I did enjoy the outcome for Clay and Mr. Penumbra. They’re “good guys.” They’re drawn for us to like them, and we do. So, it’s nice to seem them end up where they do, even though it doesn’t feel particularly realistic.