We’re all well aware of my dislike of subtitles on non-fiction books, but maybe this is a fun new fact about me and my brain: I hate them on fiction books too! Yes, a subtitle is always going to get a scowly face and a dramatic Line sticker from me. (Line stickers! They are basically the best! I want to use them for everything.) The thing about fiction subtitles is that they are almost always: “A Novel”. Yes, what with the book being shelved in the fiction section, I figured something like that might be the case. Why do people keep slapping it on there like we are too stupid to understand what “fiction” means, even though we are there in a bookstore browsing? Why would you try to market your novel to someone who doesn’t understand the very concept of a novel? It just doesn’t make any sense. I realize that the fiction section also contains short stories, but honestly, a quick peek at the back of the book will tell you if you’re up against one long story and several tiny ones. You don’t need the distracting “A Novel” slapped on the cover.
And now with that out of my system, I can get to the insides of the “Novel”. I always try to bring something disposable with me on the plane, something entertaining to while away the long ours inside the flying metal tube of recycled farts, but something that I ultimately don’t feel the need to keep on my shelves forever and occasionally coo over lovingly. I bought Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore a few months ago, but could never find the right time to read it and so it sat on the infamous shelf of unread books until I was packing up to come to Japan. I was looking for the perfect entertaining/disposable book and it seemed like the right choice. A weirdo bookstore leading to weirdo adventures for its not-that-much-of-a-we irdo clerk? Perfect.
And it was definitely entertaining. Clay loses his job as a designer for a hypermodern bagel company and in the course of wandering San Francisco reading want ads and getting out of the apartment he shares with Ashley, a PR android, and Mat, the artist building the city of Matropolis in the living room, he comes across the 24-hour bookstore with a “Help Wanted” sign in the window. He is suspicious because “[l]egitimate employers use Craislist” and he’s “pretty sure ‘24-hour bookstore’ was a euphemism for something”, but he is also desperate, so he pushes the door open and applies for the job. Obviously, he gets it or the first chapter of the book is a terrible, terrible start to a book titled after this particular bookstore.
Soon after starting work on the night shift, he notices certain oddities about the bookstore, like the fact that it has hardly any customers. And the fact that the regular customers seem to belong to some kind of book club, presenting their card in exchange for a book from what Clay calls the “Waybacklist”, a section toward the back of the bookstore filled with books with titles like “KINGSLAKE” whose insides are cryptic jumbles of letters. Another oddity is that Clay is not actually supposed to read any of the books and so he only discovers that the Waybacklist is full of letter jumbles because of the curiosity of Mat visiting from Matropolis.
Naturally, Clay gets curious too and starts trying to puzzle out just what is going on with this bookstore/book club and that is when the story takes off. But part of the charm of the book is following along with Clay as he figures it out, so I won’t spoil that for you. Because honestly, it’s been a long time since a book felt this fresh to me. There’s a kind of optimism that I’d forgotten could even exist in fiction.There’s such a joy in the words, and a real playfulness in the mystery. It’s also funny as hell. And yes, the ending is basically sappy as all get out, but I cried. I sniffled and wiped my eyes and told myself I was being silly for crying at something so sentimental, but I still cried.
The key to the whole thing is Clay’s friends. He turns to each of them in turn when their particular skills would come in handy for the next step of the mystery, and they all come through for him without hesitation. And Sloan doesn’t just make you assume that Clay is the kind of guy who is worth going out of your way for. He demonstrates it just often enough to make it believable when those friends do come through in big ways. Like how he details the origins of the friendship between Neel and Clay, how they bonded over books (of course) when they were in grade six, and Neel was a super nerd while Clay was just average.
But even still, the friends sometimes end up feeling like just-so characters. Need someone to crack a code? Hey, this girl works at Google and just happens to have a lot of resources at her disposal! Need a plane ticket to New York right now? Hey, this guy has wads of cash to spend! And Clay himself feels pretty static. He goes on this journey and basically comes out the other side not very different from how he started. His relationship with the girl feels similarly static and he seems mostly uninvolved in it. I mean, the words he uses are all “I am so into this girl”, but the way his interactions with the girl are depicted don’t really express that emotion. As the reader, I didn’t feel too invested in any of the characters beside Penumbra, who has the most to lose and actually sees the ground under his feet shift in some serious ways.
That said, I loved reading this book. I loved the story, I loved the adventure. I loved that books were front and center and that the whole thing is basically a love letter to books and friendship. You seriously can’t object to that. And so this book fails to meet my plane books needs: it was entertaining, sure, but there’s no way it’s disposable. I’ll need to have this on my shelf to coo over for years to come. Sigh. Overweight bag charge, here I come.