“All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hidden in plain sight.”
In Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, an unemployed Web designer, a bookstore that never closes, a series of beloved fantasy novels, a secret society, and a typeface known as Gerritszoon are all embroiled in the search for immortality. While eternal life is a frequently-pursued prize in history and popular culture, Sloan’s rendition of this classic quest revolves around quirky characters and a cadre of technophobic code breakers.
Clay Jannon’s life has been disrupted by the economic recession. Since losing his job as a Web designer for a bagel company, he has struggled to find a sense of purpose and a source of income. One night while aimlessly wandering the streets of San Francisco, he happens upon a fascinating sight: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay is drawn to the store and takes special notice of the help wanted sign hanging in the front window. Once inside, Clay discovers Mr. Penumbra’s labyrinthine store requires parkour-like maneuvers: “The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”
Clay becomes the new night clerk, keeping watch over Mr. Penumbra’s strange inventory during the dead of night. After conquering the nexus of unstable, rickety ladders and perfecting his parkour moves, Clay begins to pay more attention to the eccentric figures who seek out books in the middle of the night. Their intense thirst for the written word is startling, but their preference for the books on the Wayback List is even more bizarre. Night after night, harried, desperate men and women bypass shiny bestsellers and award winners in favor of a strange collection of encoded texts.
The volumes included in the Wayback List aren’t just rare tomes or out of print treasures. They are cryptic works that are essential to the mission of a secret society called the Unbroken Spine. Each member eventually writes his or her life story, known as a codex vitae (book of life), for others to decipher as part of the Wayback List. As the List grows, the living members of the Unbroken Spine (such as Penumbra and his faithful customers) work harder to reveal the secrets embedded within the most important codex vitae: the book left behind by Aldus Manutius, the Unbroken Spine’s founder.
After using computer programs and data visualization to solve a lesser puzzle, Clay finds himself involved with the Unbroken Spine’s furtive operations. Penumbra himself tries to convince the Unbroken Spine to abandon its Luddite rigidity and incorporate new technologies into its decryption efforts. They aren’t exactly receptive to his proposition, however.
In order to keep his job and protect his employer, Clay must adopt the strange cult’s quest as his own. Clay sets out to decode Aldus Manutius’s codex vitae with the help of his best friend and former D & D aficionado, Neel, and Kat, a fantastically talented Googler. Their combined abilities and resources are substantial, but even all of Google’s advanced technology can’t crack Manutius’s code or provide an answer to the ultimate question: How can one live forever? The solution Clay eventually uncovers doesn’t conform to the expectations of the Unbroken Spine or the Googlers. It does offer an interesting interpretation of what constitutes immortality, however.
The adventure story at the heart of Sloan’s novel has qualities and rhythms reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code but with more allusions to geek culture. As a narrator, Clay is both witty and charmingly befuddled. I enjoyed his cheeky sense of humor, even though there were times when things seemed to work out a bit too smoothly for him and his comrades.
Throughout Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Sloan explores the messy intersection between the knowledge preserved in physical books and the information that has become absorbed by digital technologies. Rather than renouncing one in favor of the other, Sloan emphasizes the potential benefits of a dialectical, mutually beneficial relationship between old and new technologies.