Robin Sloan a literary wizard in 'Mr. Penumbra'

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Robin Sloan, author of

Robin Sloan, author of "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" (FSG, October 2012). Photo Credit: Helena Price

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MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE, by Robin Sloan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pp., $25.

With its references to e-readers, iPhones, Google and social media, "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" might seem "of the moment" in a way that feels too calculated, too slick. These things aren't tossed in casually, however. Robin Sloan's first novel chronicles an epic battle between the old world of books -- that is, the kind with paper and spines -- and the enticing (and dangerous) opportunities of electronic communication and addictive gadgets. In a sense, it's a battle of life and death: Are old-fashioned books moribund, or are high-tech e-devices slowly killing us?

It's also a story of love and friendship, the hunger for knowledge, an obsession with typography and a quest for immortality. Beyond its ambitious ideas, what makes "Mr. Penumbra" so impressive is Sloan's great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel.

Clay Jannon is a loser. (He feels like one, at least.) He's an out-of-work Web designer living in San Francisco, his unemployment "a result of the great food chain contraction that swept through America in the early 21st century." When he stumbles upon a mysterious bookstore with a "help wanted" sign in the window, he meets Mr. Penumbra, a tall, skinny man who calls himself the store's custodian. "What do you seek in these shelves?" he asks, and offers Clay a job.

As Clay learns on his overnight shift, the front of the store, with its limited and rather arbitrary selection of used books, seems to be a cover for another. Mr. Penumbra tells him never to "browse, read, or otherwise inspect" the intriguing volumes that sit high above on dusty shelves. Oddball elderly customers, with names like Lapin and Federov, shuffle in at night, asking to borrow (not buy) those particular volumes.

Of course, Clay does peer through them, only to discover that the books are filled with jumbles of letters. "Maybe they're recreational puzzles," suggests Clay's roommate Mat. "Like, super-advanced Sudoku." Joined by Clay's new girlfriend, Kat (who works at Google), and his best friend, Neel, Clay is determined to crack the code and find out what Mr. Penumbra's bookstore is all about -- an adventure that takes them from San Francisco to New York.

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Simply put, this story is about a group of tech nerds on a quest. As Clay learns, the members of a 500-year-old fellowship, known as the Unbroken Spine, are hoping to gain the secret to eternal life -- said to be revealed in a 15th century manuscript. He can't help wondering if the society has some sinister purpose, like "Scientology for scholarly seniors."

Google figures in the story, almost a character in itself, as a workplace whose resources are exploited by Kat in her efforts to help Clay. Google also represents the thrilling New World, where all knowledge can be digitized, decoded, scanned and made public.

In the end, codes are cracked, secrets are indeed revealed and the Unbroken Spine is forced, rather uncomfortably, to face the possibilities of technology. If the "big reveal" of this fable is a slight letdown, getting there is a pure delight. Sloan is a literary wizard. Read his novel on an e-reader or the old-fashioned way, as an actual book. (The cover of the latter, by the way, glows in the dark.) Just read it.

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