My Sunday Guardian column. Because soon, we may encounter bookstores only in works of fiction.
Anyone who likes reading probably has, at one time or another, dreamt of setting up a bookstore. As Orwell wrote in a typically clear-sighted essay on his employment in a London bookstore, it's "easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios". In reality, the experience made him lose his love for books: "Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening". Looking back, "It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles".
What we dreamers are left with is the consolation of reading books set in bookstores, most of them written by those without fear of Orwellian paranoiacs. There have been many such over the years: novels by Carlos Luis Zafon, Christopher Morley and Penelope Fitzgerald and memoirs by Helen Hanff and Lewis Buzbee, to name just a few.
At first glance, Robin Sloan’s just-published debut novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, seems to be just this sort of book. As one reads on, however, one realises that it uses the state of print books and bookstores as a metaphor for changing times and largely as a hangar for a fantasy escapade.
Set primarily in San Francisco, it’s the story of Clay Jannon, who’s lost his job as a designer with the new-age firm of New Bagel, and jumps at the opportunity to work as a night clerk at the eponymous bookstore: “The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.”
The store turns out to be a place stocked by mysterious volumes that Clay is instructed by the owner not to delve into, volumes that he starts referring to as "the Waybacklist". These are checked out by oddball characters who walk into the store at night and seem to be using them to solve a long-standing puzzle.
Of course, Clay is unable to resist peeking into the books and finds them consisting of long rows of numbers, "an undifferentiated jumble". Like a good fictional protagonist he determines to solve the mystery, with the help of others such as his childhood friend Neel Shah and newly-acquired girlfriend Kat, a Google employee. Without giving too much away, the plot quickly involves itself with the machinations of a secret society known as the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine and its efforts to crack a code handed down by a Gutenberg-era publisher, involving the typeface designed by his colleague.
Much of this is fun to read at the level of a light-hearted thriller -- despite the prose being occasionally sophomoric, such as when it comes to the narrator’s feelings for Kat. There are fascinating descriptions of what it’s like to work at Google, fictional or otherwise, especially the efforts to scan every book in existence. It’s also very much a novel of its time, with allusions to Kindles, venture capitalists and the digitization of everything on earth.
One wishes, though, that Sloan -- a former Twitter employee -- hadn’t over-reached himself by including so many heavy-handed episodes to remind us of the contrasts between reality and simulation. In the first half, these come thick and fast: webcam appearances, a model of a cityscape, a logbook replica and, for good measure, even an allusion to Walter Benjamin's concept of the aura. The problem is that these don’t go anywhere: as the book progresses, it concerns itself even more frantically with the mystery’s unravelling, setting aside questions of the future of books and data.
The print edition of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is supposed to have a glow-it-the-dark cover, something I wasn't able to experience myself, having read the e-book. Despite the luminescence, it isn’t quite going to light up the worlds of those seeking the satisfactions of a book about books, being more of an enjoyable caper than anything else.