Gotham Diary:
Game Over
21 December 2012

First of all, I hate to lose. I hate to put effort into something only to come away without having achieved something discrete — “having played well” is no reward at all; it’s simply what one tries to do.

Second, I don’t have the time. I try to incorporate as much play into my work as possible, but I am never not working, even when I am daydreaming.

But it is also true that I’m put off by people — some people, anyway — who like to play games, especially puzzling and difficult and perhaps even frightening games. They can’t help nursing a hope that the game is more than a game, that, if you play it just so, portals to another, more interesting world will open before you. Of course, this belief also underpins ritual observances. I’m very much not interested in other, more interesting worlds. I can’t conceive the possibility. Where is this world going?

Robin Sloan’s new novel, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is peopled almost entirely with men and women who have lost interest in my question, or who wish to short-circuit it somehow. (The only characters who seems to be fully committed to this world are an archeology grad student and the vernacular administrator of a massive storage facility in Las Vegas.) It is difficult for me to engage with their sense of mission.

There are the black-robed members of the Unbroken Spine, a secret society devoted to unlocking the secrets of Aldo Manuzio’s Codex vitae (a fictional book). Manuzio, known also as Manutius, was the greatest of the publishers of incunabula in fifteenth-century Venice; his device, the dolphin and the anchor, appeared on Doubleday paperbacks when I was a boy. The brotherhood believe that Aldo discovered the secret of immortality, and encoded it in the Codex vitae, leaving the “key” to his favorite font designer, Griffo Gerritszoon (also fictional, from what I can make out). Gerritszoon hides the key, and the brotherhood has attempted to decode the Codex without it, for centuries and to no avail. Now the Unbroken Spine is torn apart by a disagreement about whether to bring computer power to bear on the project, and this inspires a rebel action to enlist the resources of Google itself. Thus a modern struggle overlays the ancient puzzle. The result is an atmosphere of exciting vagueness, in which a small band of plucky heroes, allied with the rebel, chase down the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They do so with much less sweat and heavy breathing than the questors in The Rule of Four, the page-turner from 2004 written by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, which exploited the hermetic text of the quite actual Hypnerotomania Pomphilii, published in 1499 — not by Aldo.

Sloan is clearly more interested in the clash of cultures that rends the Unbroken Spine than in the composition of a literary masterpiece. (It is arguable that he sees the literary masterpiece as no less a mirage than the secrete of Aldo’s immortality.) “We have new capabilities now,” writes Clay, Sloan’s narrative stand-in on the last page, “— strange powers we’re still getting used to.” To underscore the suggestion that his boyhood dreams in the reality of dungeons and dragons, the very next sentence refers to (yet another fictional tale) The Dragon-Song Chronicles: “The mountains are a message from Aldrag the Wyrm-Father.” As it happens, this second statement makes sense: a brilliant member of the Unbroken Spine hit upon the location of Gerritszoon’s key and encoded it, natch, in a childrens’ adventure long familiar to Clay. The answer was in his possession all the time, ages before he even knew that there was a question. So it is with all of us, Sloan might argue — and I would agree. The manual to our strange new powers lies within us, and with those powers we shall update it. Bravo!

But the tone of Mr Penumbra is at odds with this humanist message of deep reflection and aching wisdom. It is too breezy to comprehend the long and often wearisome work of gleaning nuggets of gold from moldy old books. There is more than a suggestion that Google will, somehow, someday, do the hard work for us — but that can never be. The hard work is never that of data retrieval, arduous as it might be. The hard work is good old-fashioned human thinking, which is something that we don’t begin to understand but must nevertheless do, over and over, as well as we can. In a Times review that begins on a favorable note, Roxane Gay concludes by charging Sloan with making too much use of “convenience.”

Instead, the book suffers from an excess of convenience — for every problem, a clever solution. Need to copy a text in a heavily guarded, secret library? There’s a portable cardboard scanner, Grumble­Gear 3000, built using instructions from the Internet. Have a complex problem requiring super computing power? Command the resources of Google. We are supposed to accept these conveniences because Clay is resourceful, but at times the ease with which the plot unfolds strains credulity. Though there are setbacks, he and his friends are never set too far back. They never have to suffer a world without answers. Instead they are afforded the satisfaction of unsolved mysteries as another obsolesced technology. Sloan effortlessly marries new ideas with old without realizing that all too often, the cleverness overwhelms the story.

I wouldn’t go that far. Given Sloan’s reluctance to burnish his novel with a more lustrous and suggestive finish, I’m glad that the conveniences bring the tale to a brisk and satisfying resolution. (Indeed, for the book that it is, Mr Penumbra is a few pages too long, especially in the middle.) Robin Sloan has surely done us the convenience of reframing the contest between books and computers as an alliance. Now it’s time for someone more exhaustive — someone like his archeology student — to develop the picture.

***

In the early dawn, our sleep was disturbed by a loud flapping, very much like the luffing of a sail on a windy day. In the dim light (and through our limiting plastic tarps), I couldn’t see what it was, but now I can: the tarp on the bedroom window next door has come loose. I don’t know if anybody is living there at the moment; the unit has a long history of subtenants. (No trouble to us, I’m happy to say. The only difficulty I had was with a man who liked to make calls on his mobile from the balcony in balmy weather, when the windows were all open.. There was not a corner in our apartment in which he could not be heard. I finally had to tell him as much, trying not to shout from our half of the balcony, and that was the end of that.) But from the way the tarp is flapping, I’d say that the tape came loose. Now: what is to be done?