Peter John McLean
Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore (Reviews)
So I just finished reading this book by Robin Sloan, called Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. I didn’t like it.
I wanted to like it. It hits on all sorts of topics I love, specifically Borges’ mindfucks, arcane secret societies, mysterious puzzles, and all that other shit. He even goes out of his way to namedrop Borges, House of Leaves, and Haruki Murakami at varying intervals throughout the book. All of these things, individually, are great. But they just didn’t come together to make a book that was interesting to me. It felt like like all the pieces were slapped together. In a lot of ways, it felt like a first draft.
For an example, the relationship between Clay and the beautiful dream girl that he can’t believe just happened to walk into the bookstore…
…and is having sex with him a chapter or two later without any real development here at all. I admit that I read more literary fiction than anything else, so I’m biased in favor of fully fleshed out characters over gripping sagas and bloodstained plot lines. Still, even from a plot driven standpoint the subplot of their relationship is extremely choppy. She shows up when he needs access to Google technology and they stop seeing each other (without any break up or even a conversation that might indicate things had changed) when he no longer needs her to push the plot forward.
I was surprised how all of the characters exist solely to push the plot forward: the old smart trope who brings the mystery, the rich friend who exists to give Clay cars, train tickets, and connections, the pretty girl who gives him access to super computers, and the roommate that helps him build the model of the store that solves the Founder’s Puzzle. The flat characters are each formed to provide Dungeons and Dragons level development – they push things forward when necessary and Sloan stops writing about them when they aren’t necessary.
I was trying to overlook the lack of character development for a long time. Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore was the only non literary fiction that I was reading so I kept forgiving it because it was meant to tell a plot driven mystery story. It was supposed to be fun.
That was until he nuked the relationship with Kat, the cliche nerd girl. Apparently since the Google experiment in the story failed, the girl that represents Google and offers easy plot device access to Google technology wasn’t useful anymore so she immediately exited Stage Left. This is a pretty common move in first draft writing, you stop needing a character and so you just stop writing about her. But usually, through future drafts, this gets cleaned up and the character either fades away through developments that are written (with words) or some twist causes them to go away. They can’t just dissipate when they no longer serve the writer’s goals.
I liked his voice though. Sloan clearly has a strong command of writing and his book was very easy to read. I finished it in two sittings, though the flat characters and plot driven nature made it easier to read at a quick pace. It touches on interesting themes and the ending message is decent as well, basically turning the question of immortality back on the reader and suggesting the metaphysical value of ideas etc. It was neat. I don’t regret reading it, I just felt like it could have been a lot better with more vibrant characters.