There’s a short story by Arthur C. Clarke called “The Nine Billion Names of God” which postulates that if you use computers to solve the mysteries of religion, things will go poorly for humanity. Kind of. In Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, author Robin Sloane has updated that idea into a full novel. This time, it’s a secret society of puzzle solvers looking for the code to decipher an ancient text which will lead to immortality. But the idea is basically the same, even if the ending is not.
In fact, it seems like there aren’t many original ideas in Mr. Penumbra aside from the way they’re all put together, but even then, the piece seems to be a bit of metafiction, with constant commentary on itself through a false third person narrative (and if you’re listening to it, it gets even weirder since there’s an audio book within the written text).
Beyond comparison to a classic short story the gist of the the plot here is that an eccentric bookstore (The titular Mr. Penumbra’s) is a meeting place for a group who are trying to solve “the Founder’s Puzzle” which is basically a series of codes to lead you around the bookstore, shelf to shelf as you decipher one ancient tome only to have it lead to another. Clay Jannon, our protagonist, finds himself stumbling into the store in hopes of securing a job, which he does. Since this is the high tech world of 2012, and he is not one to let a mystery go unsolved, he accidentally solves the founder’s puzzle, which then opens up the door to another, bigger puzzle, and leads from the basement of the cult headquarters to the very heart of Google itself (where Clay’s halfheartedly written love interest, Kat Potente, works).
It’s a fun little romp, and Sloan shows true insider knowledge of the way silicon valley works (or at least credible enough not to through me out of the moment). The problems come, though, as Jannon starts to solve things. At one point Jannon ends up just outside Las Vegas (in a place called Enterprise, Nevada) at a repository for cast off museum pieces. Sloane’s description of the place is great, but his logic as to why Jannon has to go inside to describe it to us, make no sense at all. And as the book got closer to the end, I found myself question things more and more.
Endings are always hard, I know. But here, it seems like the key to solving the mystery would have been discovered at several other points within the last 500 years (we know it happened once and that the discoverer those not to reveal it) and the final answer would be a little more profound than the lyrics to “One Tin Soldier” (and no, that’s not the answer literally, but it’s certainly in the same spiritual vein). It would also have been nice to have an antagonist with a little bit of depth. In fact, the most character development is with the secondary and minor characters while the featured players seem to all be crudely drawn archetypes.
I just wanted more at stake. Even for a lighthearted adventure, I wanted to care more about Jannon and his quest. One of the meta parts is a book within the book which holds the key to solving the actual book’s mystery. The shame is that the fictional book seems to offer more for a reader to care about than the book we’re reading.