Path from past to the fu­ture

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store The Knot

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Anne Part­lon Anne Part­lon

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.

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