Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Always Open, Always Open Ended--Investigating Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Clay Jannon gets laid off from his job doing graphics for a bagel chain. It’s NewBagel, where the bagels are optimized for deliciousness, but apparently that entails changing the shape. Oh, and then it becomes Old Jerusalem Bagels, where they forget about optimizing anything and just try to play on heritage, not that bagels are from Jerusalem or anything. Neither method works.

Wandering around San Francisco, he finds a help wanted ad at Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, which by the way, is also the name of the new novel by Robin Sloan, about which I am currently writing. Jannon's got the 10 pm to 6 am shift and he’s the only employee. In the front of the store is a basic, though hardly extensive, selective of titles. They get maybe one customer per shift. But in the back, or the wayback, as Clay says, is a huge lending library of titles, seemingly in no order at all. Regulars come in, return a volume, and ask for another. The rules? Clay is not to look at the books. But rules are made to be broken, right?

And it turns out this bookstore is part of a vast secret operation spanning hundreds of years that might hold the key to nothing short of eternal life. Into this mystery, he brings his childhood friend Neel, now CEO of a breast imaging company, and a new crush, Kat, a designer/programmer at Google who wears the same shirt every day so she can focus on bigger thoughts than clothing.

Neel and Clay bonded as children over a fantasy trilogy called The Dragon Song Chronicles, by Clark Moffatt. And like all fantasy epics, a wizard, a warrior, and a rogue to team up on an epic quest. And what could be more epic than figuring out what is going on at Mr. Penumbra’s?

It got me thinking about how Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore plays with both genre and literary convention. I was also fascinated by the way this entertaining book could be categorized into so many different sub-classes of books. I don’t think this is by accident.

a. What genre is this book anyway? It’s a mystery, to be sure, but is it a thriller? It’s more of the adventure genre than thriller, a distinction that is actually clearer in kids’ books. In an adventure novel, nobody is in any particular danger. And another clue, that this is almost an adventure comedy? It ends with a party. In a sense, it reminds me a bit of Adam Langer’s The Thieves of Manhattan, only with more tech and less literary allusion. More on Langer's book below.

b. Is this an old-fashioned love-letter-to-books novel, or the first of many love-letter-to-ebooks novel? Though there’s certainly a respect for the printed book in some level that travels throughout the story, there’s a glorification of digitalization that travels throughout the story, and there’s no end to Kindle name dropping. No e-reader here. And Nook, Sony, and Kobo almost become the punchline of a joke.

c. Yes, you made Amazon happy, but I don’t know how Barnes & Noble is going to feel. B&N stores take second place in the “place to buy a book” passage, after the fictional indie and before Walmart. But making B&N second in the physical bookstore and ebookstore (after Amazon) isn’t going to get you a Discovery Great New Writers nomination. Note: I still have to make sure this is in the final copy.

d. Speaking of name dropping, is Google the hero/ine of this book or what? This is the kind of book where using all actual names detracted from the story. There’s even an inserted ad for Google’s upcoming ebook reader (and that sort of makes us booksellers whiny). While Google doesn’t necessary make the breakthroughs it wants in the story, it’s clearly on the forefront of everything, and while another writer might have given the company a bit of a Big Brother cast, it’s all seemingly benevolent here. Unless I read it wrong. Strange.

e. Speaking of endings, I really don’t think this will detract from the story by telling you this, but this one of those books where the protagonist turns out to have been writing the very novel you’re reading. Sheila Kohler used this device in The Bay of Foxes, and I realized I have read a lot of novels over the years that used this device, but what is it actually called in writerly circles and why can’t I find a list of these books? For one thing, you’re supposedly giving something away by revealing this, but when I thought it through, while it gives you an emotional jolt, it never really gives that much away.

--Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (2012)
--The Bay of Foxes, by Sheila Kohler (2012)
--The Thieves of Manhattan, by Adam Langer (2010)

Do you remember any others? I would love to add to this list. Email me or comment on the blog and I will add select titles.

f. Speaking of books I can’t remember, there’s also that subgenre of books set in bookstores:

--Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (2012)
--A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cosse (2010)
--Haunting Jasmine, by Anjali Banerjee (2011)
--The Haunted Bookshop mysteries, by Alice Kimberly (2004-2011)
--The Cookbook Collector , by Allegra Goodman (2010)

If you email me or comment, I will add them to the list.

g. Let’s talk about books about puzzles. From The DaVinci Code to Patrick Somerville’s recent This Bright River, there’s something about puzzles encrypted into novels that makes gives them a little zing. And now I can’t think of any others in this category. I have no list for this.

That's a lot of lists! But don't worry, as apparently there's some Google algorithm to spit out the answers in seconds.

Folks are writing in with books set in bookstores. I meant novels, and Jane offered one of those, plus lots and lots of memoirs:
Shelf Life by Suzanne Strempek Shea
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald (the novel)
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
The Yellow Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
The Little Bookshop of Big Stone Gap by Wendy Welch
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell
Keep those suggestions coming.

1 comment:

StacieMichelle said...

I really enjoyed The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Hay. It's about an Aussie orphan who moves to New York and finds work in a Strand-esque used bookstore operated by a bunch of quirky people. There's a mysterious manuscript, complicated relationships and lots of biblio-adoration.