Thursday, April 10, 2014

Can A Sexist Book Still Be Good? (Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour...)

We're going to start off here with a very obvious statement: I like good books.

I know, right? This is so obvious that I feel a little silly putting it up there, but it's definitely true. I do, in fact, like good books. Because they're, you know, good. And I like good books enough that the people I know often recommend books to me. Like, a lot. This is a good thing, because it means that I get the opportunity to read things I might not have otherwise encountered. So yay for that.

As you might have guessed, though, there is a downside. You see, I also like seeing my gender represented well in said good books, and unfortunately this seems to be sort of a sticking point. Because from here the options are limited. Either the good people who recommend things to me can only ever recommend me books that they have carefully pre-screened for all issues related to gender, race, and social justice, or they can just hand it over and say "It's kind of sexist, but it's still a good book."

Is it, though? That's what I've been wrestling with for the past few days. Because while I hate the idea that people should self-censor their recommendations to me based on their idea of what I would like (which almost never works anyways), I also have a really big problem with this, the idea that a book can still be good even when it's sexist and racist and generally insulting.

With all of that in mind, let's talk about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloane. 

The book is one of those weird but engaging concept novels, where there are fourteen kajillion ideas floating around and eventually they all come together to make sense, but mostly you just kind of love the vibe that makes you excited to learn stuff and think and be creative. These are all things I appreciate in a book, so I was pretty jazzed to read this. 

The story follows Clay Jannon, a graphic designer who lost his dream job and bright future as the guru behind the design of "New Bagel" when the Great Recession hit. Now stuck in a San Francisco that doesn't need graphic designers, apparently, Clay is willing to take just about any job so he can keep paying rent on the house he shares with his appropriately wacky roommates, Mat and the girl whose name I cannot remember and I absolutely cannot find by googling the book which is weird. 

In his search for a new job, Clay discovers Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a weird little used book shop next to a strip club that doesn't really appear to have any customers, but is nonetheless hiring a night clerk. Clay walks in, has a quick discussion with Mr. Penumbra himself, and the job is his.

All he has to do is show up every night at ten, and then stay until six in the morning. He is to assist any customers that come in, which is pretty infrequent, but his real job is to watch them all. Because while Mr. Penumbra's doesn't really have customers who buy books, it does have customers who borrow books, and the books they borrow are super weird. And old. And, well, creepy.

It doesn't take long for Clay to get curious about the real purpose of Mr. Penumbra's. Like, why is it open 24-hours a day? How does it stay in business when there seem to be literally no paying customers? And what on earth are all those people doing borrowing weird books that must be written in some kind of code? 

Like any normal person, Clay starts digging. With the help of his friend Mat (a special effects wizard), and then the help of his new crush, Kat (a google programmer), Clay figures out how to really study the borrowers who come into the library, and what they find astounds him. The borrowers aren't just reading books in code, they're reading books in code in a really specific pattern. For some reason. Some weird reason that no one understands. And when Mr. Penumbra finds out that Clay has tracked it, well, things get even weirder.

The book delves into a lot of topics in its 300-ish pages, and I don't particularly feel the need to tell you how the plot turns out. It really is a lot of fun to follow it along and discover it as you go. This is a real novel of ideas - it covers typography, cryptography, programming, immortality, museum curation, fantasy novel epics about singing dragons, marketing, and the final climactic scene involves a powerpoint presentation. It's got something for everyone, is what I'm saying.

It's a good book. And I like good books. I liked this good book. But, should I?

So, while the plot is fun and interesting, and while the whole concept of the book is one that I unabashedly adore (the conflict between old and new, and the path to finding a balance), there are a lot of little things in here that I hate. A lot. Like, so much. But the thing is, they're all tiny little details. Probably not worth even mentioning, except for the part where they really actually are.

First off, there are, I believe, three named female characters in the book. Of them, two are love interests to someone more central to the plot, and one is an old lady who appears in three scenes where she gets to talk. Also she might be a love interest of Mr. Penumbra's. That was left vague.

And while Kat, love interest number one, is a superficially cool character, with her programming know-how and her love of working at Google, she's actually really badly written. Quirkiness is substituted for depth here, which makes for a frustrating read. While Kat does have compelling interests, she has absolutely no depth. She's apparently obsessed with eternal life. Why? Why is she obsessed with that? It's a really specific thing for a character to be super interested in, and Kat is a young woman. Why is she so fixated on her own mortality?

But we don't know, because the book never goes there. It never really goes anywhere with Kat. She's there to help Clay figure out the problem of the bookstore, and then to help him on his quest to solve the mystery (oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that there's a 500 year old mystery too), but when the going gets tough, she leaves. And then she gets back together with him in the epilogue for some reason, despite there never having been enough development on either side for us to know why Kat was dating Clay in the first place.

And the other two female characters? Well, they're mostly there to push the story along or add depth to a male character, like Mat or Mr. Penumbra. They don't serve any real purpose. That would be silly.

Unfortunately, it doesn't stop here. The book also includes a really problematic whole thing where Clay's childhood best friend, Neel, is a millionaire because he runs a company that invented jiggle-physics. Or perfected them, at least. And every time we meet Neel, we are treated to pages and pages of him referencing boobs. Like, we visit the headquarters of Anatomix, his company, and all of the programmers are awkward nerds who program likenesses of old Hollywood screen legends. But just the boobs. And Neel is totally comfortable bringing up boobs in regular conversations. Not women, mind you, he just talks about breasts. As if they were disembodied.

I'm really not kidding about this. At one point, late in the story, Clay needs access to a museum curator, and the only way to get it is for Neel, the funder of most of the adventure, to write a check to this tiny knitting museum in NoCal. Which he does. But then later in the book, when he meets the museum curator (sorry, forgot to count her - there are four whole women in the book, wow), he proposes that they do an entire exhibit on how breasts really look best in sweaters.

That is a thing that happens. In this book. On purpose, it seems.

It would be weird enough to have a character who is straight-faced that obsessed with breasts just in general, but the book reminds us constantly that Neel is Clay's childhood best friend, and that as a kid he was a fat nerdy loser, who just happened to grow up rich. Oh, and he's Indian.

So, to recap, Neel is an Indian nerd who made millions of dollars by staring at breasts and doing something computer-y with them. And he used to be fat.

I'm so not okay with this on many, many levels. It's not that the book has the audacity to not directly address issues of gender and race and social inequality, it's that it completely ignores the opportunities it does have. I don't need a book to be explicitly about sexism, and I don't need it to constantly be beating me over the head with how progressive it is. What I do need is to be able to get through a dang book without wanting to throw it at the wall for its cheap characterizations and reliance on racial stereotypes.

This really gets down to the question we started with. Can I call this book good? Because on the one hand, I really did enjoy the crap out of it. It's compelling, fun, and easy to read. The mystery was totally engrossing, and it really stuck the ending, which is hard to do. 

On the other hand, I spent most of the book irritated at how the author wrote pretty much everyone who wasn't a white male character.


I wish I had an answer here. I really do. For me, I think the problem isn't so much that this book failed the Bechdel Test, or that it offended me, the problem is that no one else thinks that's a problem. The problem is that this book is unquestioningly recommended and put on lists of best speculative fiction novels and passed around, and we don't ask whether or not it should be. We have accepted the idea that even though it really does a terrible job of representing most of the population of the world, it's still a good book.

Can you have a good book that gets it so wrong, though? For my money, I actually think that's the wrong question. Because here's the one that I do know the answer to: Should you have a good book that gets it so wrong?



  1. I have been struggling with these very issues, while reading the book, thank you for your insight! The underlying sexism is not, I would say, actively malicious, but it shows a widespread, unchallenged mindset, and that bothered me.

    (on a general note, I've just found your blog, through your Cap 2 reviews, and I'm glad I did, there's some great insight)

    1. Agreed. It's not that he's trying to be sexist or racist, just that it seems to have never occurred to him that he might be. Which is annoying.


  2. Thank you. I finished the book recently and found myself really bothered by the use of stereotypes, cliches, etc and am glad I came across your post. Like you, I don't want to be hit over the head with it, but as the other comments say, that the author seems completely unaware of this is really annoying and a huge disappointment.

    I'm not sure the answer to your question, but I have no problem in saying that no, Mr. Penumbra is just not a good book, aside from the issues you bring up. It's pretentious, underdeveloped and is a long ad for Google. It upsets me I bought it for full price.

    1. Yes, it is rather markedly pro-Google, isn't it? What's up with that?

  3. Thanks for your post! I just finished reading and I have and almost exactly the same reaction to the book as you-- I enjoyed the crap out of it, but was really, really bothered by the terribly written female characters and ubiquitous sexism and racism. In fact that thing that bothered me the most was that none of Mr. Penumbra's books (the favorites that he stocks at the front of the store) are by female authors! I was like, Robin Sloan cannot think of one book that he likes that is by a female author?! Or five!? Glad to know there are others paying attention to and being disturbed by this. I also thought the breast animation company was pretty ironic given this: Basically, animators, as of this year, are actually really terrible at rendering breasts.

    1. Oh man. I didn't even notice that none of those books were by female authors. And I feel somehow even worse about that. Like the casual sexism of the book leeched into my brain so hard that I lost sight of things I would normally be all over...

      The thing about animators and breasts, however, is amazingly hilarious. Have you seen EscherGirls on tumblr? Sometimes even pen and ink artists are fantastically bad at rendering the female body...