Path from past to the future
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store The Knot
By Robin Sloan Text Publishing, 288pp, $29.99. By Mark Watson Simon & Schuster, 361pp, $29.99
NOT far into Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, a comic novel by San Francisco writer Robin Sloan, a minor character who works for Google apologises to the bookseller of the title for putting him out of business.
‘‘ I mean,’’ observes the man from Google, ‘‘ once we’ve got everything scanned ... nobody’s going to need bookstores, right?’’ His colleague concurs. ‘‘ Codes great,’’ she intones, ‘‘ books boring.’’
Welcome to the digital revolution. But are books and other print media really destined to go the way of the dodo? Not according Sloan, whose Swiftian satire reignites the battle between the ancients and the moderns.
The plot follows the exploits of Clay Jannon, a 26-year-old unemployed computer software designer and avid reader of books about teenage wizards and vampire policemen. Wandering the streets of San Francisco in search of a job, he stumbles on a strange bookstore. The owner, the shadowy Mr Penumbra, hires him to work the late shift.
Clay quickly discovers this is a most unusual bookshop. Most of the volumes are encrypted. Visitors are rare, sales are practically unheard of and the only customers are a small band of eccentrics who spend their days trying to decode the tomes that pack ‘‘ the tall laddered shelves’’.
What are they looking for? Intrigued, Clay and his friends embark on a quest that promises to reveal the secret of life itself.
Like his protagonist, Sloan, who has worked for cutting-edge media organisations such as Twitter and Al Gore’s Current TV, is besotted with technology, to the point of investing its savants with superhuman powers. Googlers are ‘‘ wizards’’, hackers are ‘‘ heroes’’ and, in one of many ironic nods to Harry Potter, computer codes are spells cast to subvert authority.
In the opposite corner are the guardians of ‘‘ old knowledge’’, or book lore, headed by the sinister Corvina, a berobed bibliophile who forbids his disciples — known collectively as the Unbroken Spine — from dabbling in digitals. They utter Latin phrases (more Potterisms), congregate in secret chambers and have names such as Aldus and Ajax. Even Penumbra’s book repository resembles Ollivanders wand shop.
The scene is thus set for a quarrel between traditionalists and progressives, a nifty binary structure that reflects metafictively on the subject matter.
It is also an old literary theme that echoes Swift’s 1704 satire The Battle of the Books. Swift sided with the classicists against the men of science, but Sloan has a bet each way, pleading for reconciliation between old and new methodologies. It is the extremists in both camps that he mocks, if such good-humoured raillery can be so described. The future, he opines, lies at the ‘‘ intersection of literature and codes, books and technology’’.
A fable for the computer age, this jaunty colloquy, replete with pop-cultural references and pithy asides to the reader, celebrates the restorative power of friendship and the creative spirit in whatever form it manifests itself.
While Sloan ponders the future, British comedian Mark Watson seems fixated on the past. A regular at the Edinburgh Fringe and Melbourne Comedy Festival, Watson may be familiar to Australian readers from his guest appearances on now defunct television shows Rove, Spicks and Specks and Good News Week.
Spanning 60 years in the lives of an outwardly ordinary British family after World War II, The Knot probes the confronting subjects of incest, adultery, mental illness and alcoholism. But don’t let that put you off. Despite its dark matter, this is a very funny and often moving fictional autobiography.
Watson’s narrator is the oddly named Dominic Kitchen, a middle-aged photographer struggling to make sense of his fading memories, his relationships and several shocking family secrets.
Growing up in London in the 1950s and 60s, young Dom feels out of step with the world. For one thing he does not like football, although his father is a sports writer for the local newspaper. Teased at school and snubbed by his smarter big brother Max, he has few allies. One of them is his glamorous older sister, Victoria, who protects him from the school bullies and buys him his first camera, setting him on his later career path.
When Victoria leaves home to marry rising cricket star Tom Shillingworth, Dom finds a new chum in Irishman Roger Daley, a kindly local shopkeeper. They form an unlikely business partnership, travelling across the country on weekends to photograph weddings, parties, anything. But Dom’s unresolved feelings for his sister continue to wreak havoc on his emotional life.
They say that if you can remember the 60s you weren’t there, and 30-something Watson is too young to have witnessed that tumultuous decade. Curious, then, that he should have chosen a narrator old enough to be his father, let alone one who revels in pre-digital technology.
One suspects Watson yearns nostalgically for what he sees as a simpler era, although his main theme here is the fragility of memory. Ironically, while Dom considers himself and Daley to be in the ‘‘ memory business’’, capturing people’s special moments, he often challenges his own recollections, raising questions about his reliability as a narrator. His parents suffer similar lapses. Mum forgets the words of the songs she sings around the house while Dad succumbs to dementia.
But Watson, too, exhibits symptoms of selective amnesia. Although Dom’s occupation is a useful device for looking back at the changing fads and fashions of British society, the author fails to make the most of it. There are no deep historical insights here.
It must also be said the frequent allusions to churches, brides and wedding ceremonies become tedious after a while. Indeed, there are so many nuptials in this book, it could have been retitled Four Hundred Weddings and a Funeral.
The actual title, which describes a humiliating public episode in Dom’s childhood, also refers to the stomach-clenching sensations to which we are all prey: love and loathing, fear and desire. Watson, who honed his skills on stage, is adept at playing with his readers’ emotions. The Knot is a grittier tale than Sloan’s cyber fantasy, but both novels share the lively conversational tone that has become the hallmark of popular fiction in a rapidly spinning world. As they say in Penumbraland, festina lente.