A new independent bookstore in South Park, San Diego!

The Cultural Penumbra

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

So, a few weeks ago, a fellow named Jacob Silverman wrote a piece for Slate.com titled Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture, sending the book blogo-twitto-sphere into a buzzing frenzy of conversation. Essentially, (by rather unfairly using Emma Straub as an example) Silverman nailed down what has been gently gnawing at the back of my brain for a while now – that many authors have become so accessible and cuddly through social media in recent years that we, as (self-proclaimed) cultural critics, are now afraid to shred them in a review, since we’re friends on Facebook or follow each others tweets. It is as if we are witnessing the slow motion degradation of literary, critical culture.

(Reviewers think) that they will catch more readers (and institutional support) with honey than with argument, dissent, or flair. 

I think that despite what most of us (book bloggers, especially) tell ourselves, there’s a lot of truth to Silverman’s above statement. What do you do if you DON’T like a book and you’ve already connected in some 21st-century-version-of-a-meaningful-way with the author? We are very much living in a “mutual admiration society” here in the online literary world.

Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they ❤ so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.

That assessment right there – that’s what I’ve been struggling with recently. I have no interest, really, in fluffing my Twitter follower count by pandering and back-slapping and claiming to <3<3<3 some crappy book, just because it's lit-du-jour. It's a far healthier literary culture if we are honest in our critical assessments of the things we read. As small fish as I am here on the Book Catapult, I feel I owe it to other readers out there to let them know if I think there is a book that should be avoided – squashed like a binding-eating silverfish. (Sort of the opposite argument that Lev Grossman made in his recent Time article, I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation.) The same way that I let people know if there’s a book out there that should not be missed. I’ve never been a stranger to writing about things I don’t like, we all know that. And I’ve never lied about liking a book that I was actually indifferent to, let alone praising one that I actually disliked. But I do often find myself not writing about a book that I didn’t like, simply because panning a book is harder than fawning over one.

The problem with Liking (on social media) is that it’s a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence – or, really, posture without opinion.

We will have no “posture without opinion” here on the Catapult. You had to know that this rant was leading somewhere, friend. In the interest of doing my part to halt the fade of the literary salon culture, I will now offer up my review of Robin Sloan’s forthcoming (and much buzzed about book) Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. Which – I am proud to publicly admit – I kinda hated.

Sloan

Like I said, there has already been quite a bit of buzz in that back-slapping literary world for Mr. Sloan’s book. He originally published a much-talked about short story version of Mr. Penumbra’s as an ebook several years back – available to read on his website, robinsloan.com. There are 2 Twitter feeds to follow: @robinsloan and @penumbra. (Sloan is an ex-Twitter employee, FYI.) The book has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, it is an October Indie Next list selection, it has gotten a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly. It was edited by one of my favorite book editors at one of my favorite publishers, Sean McDonald from FSG. The cover glows in the fucking dark. It’s all enough to give me pause as I write this – maybe I’m wrong in my critical assessment? 

No, fuck that. Even if I am wrong and this thing is the greatest piece of literature to arrive in the last 500 years, I STILL have to do this. I have to keep the critical fires going in the world, because where are we if I stop? (Yeah, that sounds awfully self-important, but hey, this is the Book Catapult, pal.)

The set-up sounds great: geeky Clay Jannon finds a job working the late shift in a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. The interior of this Mr. Penumbra’s shop has shelves that stretch 30 feet up in a cavernous space, filled with thousands of leather-bound volumes of mysterious, coded texts. Most of the customers that come in during the night partake in a bizarre shuffle of dropping off volumes and requesting new ones. Money never changes hands, but Clay is required to record all occurrences in a massive journal kept under the desk. 

All good at this point for me – the kid loves this store with its eccentric clientele and rows upon rows of dusty tomes. But then Sloan starts to push my buttons. 

As curiosity gets the better of Clay, he creates a computer model of the book stacks in an attempt to further track the habits of the customers. Enter Kat, the beautiful girl with the chipped tooth & a smart mouth who works for Google. Within a page of her appearance, Kat is helping to rewrite Clay’s code, revealing a complex system of patterns and codes hidden within the shelves. To further explore the data, the two decide that Clay should somehow smuggle one of the logbooks from the store out to Google, where Kat will be able to use their famed book scanner on it, effectively digitizing all the information on Penumbra’s customers. 

From this point forward, the book reads like a Google fluff party. The whole time I was reading it, trying to line up in my brain how the old bookstore filled with magical old volumes will meet the digitization of printed literature, I kept thinking Sloan was just trying to get a rise out of me. It read as if he was setting everything up to then yank the rug out from under Clay and his tech-loving friends, revealing the importance of the actual books themselves. What an idiot I was.

The scenes at Google headquarters are particularly distressing, with the benefit of hindsight revealing how this thing plays out in the end. One of the “Googlers” explains to Clay upon his first visit to the campus how great it will be when all of the worldly knowledge housed inside books and in people’s heads is digitized and made available to everyone, all the time, from anywhere on the planet. “No question will ever go unanswered again.” Then Clay is shown the infamous book scanner – the device that scans the pages of books for inclusion into Google’s massive database, using multiple cameras and a series of spidery metal arms. 

It’s mesmerizing. I’ve never seen anything at once so fast and so delicate. The arms – I can’t tell if there are four or eight or sixteen – stroke the pages, caress them, smooth them down. This thing loves books.

I watch (the) computer lift the words right up off the pale gray pages. It looks like an exorcism.

Movable type. Google it.

How sinister is that action? “This is awesome,” says Kat, breathily, at one point. 

It continues in this vein and eventually, some of the answers Clay is seeking come from the enigmatic Mr. Penumbra himself. In a nutshell, the books in Penumbra’s shop have been written by the disciples of a man named Manutius, who they believe discovered the secret to eternal life and hid the answer inside a coded text he called Codex Vitae. For 500 years, the members of the secret society the Unbroken Spine have been trying to crack the code to the codex, to no avail. The volumes in the bookstore are their collected life works – everything they were able to discover about the secrets of Manutius’ code – and subsequent members study the texts to work toward their own findings. 

Yeah yeah. So there’s a master book, hidden in a cellar in Manhattan, where the disciples meet to study the code, never taking the book from its hiding spot. Kat has this assessment:

“We can scan this,” she says, patting the book on the table. “And if there’s a code, we can break it. We have machines that are so powerful – you have no idea.”

All in all, there is a glimmer of hope at some point – for we book purists – because (spoiler alert!) Google’s engineers – in all their brilliance and glitz – cannot, in fact, crack Manutius’ codex. Ha ha. But even so, there is no backlash at Kat and the Googlers for their hubris at thinking that they can crack this uncrackable code and come up with all the answers for capturing the world’s knowledge. No comeuppance. In fact, once the mystery is solved, Penumbra’s shop never reopens (he takes a leave of absence to help Clay crack the case) and is eventually turned into a rock climbing center. Sorry, another spoiler.

Okay, so I have a differing philosophical opinion on the culture of the book, no big deal, it’s happened before. What makes it all the worse, however, is how pedestrian and uninspired the writing is throughout – even amateurish and positively giddy over the prospects proposed by the Googlers. To me, the worst offenses came in the form of infuriating passages of narrative breakdowns like these:

I wonder what Raj has in his lunch.
“Vitamin D, omega-3s, fermented tea leaves,” he says.

And:

I wonder if Kat Potente has been summoned.
She shakes her head. “Not yet,” she says.

Maybe it’s just me, but sections like this make me want to punch somebody in the throat. Is Clay actually wondering aloud, despite the lack of quotation marks or are the other characters linked to him psychically? If this is your narrative hook, you’ve got to own in throughout, buddy – you can’t just drop this sort of thing in from time to time and expect me to be on board. It made the whole thing harder to take seriously as literature – which I assume is where Sloan and FSG wanted to be taking this. But I digress.

The plotting often veers into literary-mystery territory covered (with much more skill) by the likes of Italo Calvino, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (Hell, even by my old arch-nemesis, Dan Brown.) So much time is spent navel-gazing and blathering about the wonderful tech that Google is capable of, that plot and sentence structure are effectively dismissed. I understand that part of the premise behind this is to show that we are at a cultural intersection of technologies – between that of the bound book and the digitization of print – but it came off as more of an advertisement for Google than anything else. I also just couldn’t get on board with the mentality of loving the scanning of information so much, when the centerpiece to the whole thing was this amazing physical space filled with everything about books that is great and tactile and beautiful.

The opening line from that starred PW review was, “For those who fear that the Internet/e-readers/whatever-form-of-technological-upheaval-is-coming has killed or will kill paper and ink, Sloan’s debut novel will come as good news.”

Bullshit. I think Sloan’s message is the opposite of that. I think that he’s saying that either the two can co-exist, with tech taking the gold medal and bound books the bronze, or that technology is amazing and fallible, but still better than the dumb old books. 

Hey, it is what it is. That’s how I read it and this is just one man’s opinion. And that’s what criticism is all about. Take it or leave it.
 

A P.S. fun fact: Jacob Silverman, of the Slate opinion piece, also has a pretty funny Tumblr feed where he compiles all the book blurbs written by prolific blurber, author Gary Shteyngart: shteyngartblurbs.tumblr.com
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One comment on “The Cultural Penumbra

  1. Anonymous
    October 19, 2013

    I wasn't quite sure if I liked this book or not, but now I realize that I did like it in the way that I like eating too many Oreos. It's both sickening and sweet. I loved the thrill of the hunt and Clay's satisfaction with the reveal, but everything else was disappointing. I agree with the assessment of Sloan's message. I found it particularly irritating that someone as intelligent as Clay would continue to pursue Kat after she unceremoniously dumped him after she and the Googlers couldn't decode the book. She was more selfishly interested in the key to immmortality (because you're so friggin great you should live forever?) than in an actual romance with Clay. And in the end, the solution to the puzzle wasn't enough for her. The fact that they eventually re-established their relationship seems false to me. Although of course, Kat does get what she wants in the end. But how can someone with the passion for old stuff, books, and mystery like Clay stay with a woman who essentially wants to be an android?

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