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The Cafe Irreal: Irreal (Re)views

The Library of Babel meets Google

by Garrett Rowlan

Literary influence is a two-way street. We see how a current work can be influenced by past efforts and, at the same time, cast a light backward on its predecessor in the way that, say, Ishiguro's The Unconsoled shows aspects of a celebrity culture that is missing in Kafka's The Trial, or Michael Cunningham's The Hours suggests new dimensions in the life and work of Virginia Woolf; or how the novel Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, its paperback edition published in 2013, shows the influence of Jorge Luis Borges.

I know that Sloan's novel is influenced by Borges because I asked. Sloan had appeared in Pasadena, California, on May 27, 2014, as part of the "one city, one book" program. In the Q and A period that followed his discussion of the book, he said that "Borges was a huge influence," and that he had heard people describe the novel as "Borgesian."

His words were a confirmation of what I had already suspected by page eight when his protagonist, Clay Jannon, enters the novel's eponymous bookstore and sees absurdly tall bookshelves with attached ladders that "faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might go on forever." I thought of Borges and his short story about the infinite Library at Babel, and even more so when, in a novel otherwise chary of dropping authors' names, two more references to Borges are made.

Admittedly, I'd been all too eager to find echoes of Borges's library in other fictional gathering of books, for example, the archival gloom of Jose Saramago's All The Names, or the wizardly library in Lev Grossman's The Magicians. Yet it seemed to me, even before I asked about Sloan's influence, that the atmosphere of Mister Penumbra's Bookstore, and the vast, Nevada-based storage facility toward the book's end, where "tall metal shelves…move in tight, controlled bursts…like schoolchildren, fighting and joisting," reflect the influence of Borges.

In the novel, Clay Jannon, an unemployed tekkie in San Francisco, takes in desperation (the novel's economic ambience is of the 2008 meltdown) a night job in a 24-hour bookstore. The few customers that Clay encounters do not buy books but borrow them, using a library card ID with jumbled letters and numbers. It is soon obvious that the patrons are not causal readers but wanderers after a mystery embedded in the book's "Wayback" shelves. I thought of Borges. His library is an infinite space with books of a uniform topography and an incomprehensible lexical approach. The books are "formless and chaotic…for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal jumbles and incoherencies." In a similar manner, the books in the 24-Hour Bookstore are disorganized, not shelved according to title or subject. Many "have the look of antiquity."

Later in the novel, a regular customer tells Clay that she is, like the others, a sort of acolyte who borrows, reads, and studies books in order to "decode" each and find the "key" to the next. Later, Clay befriends a Google employee, Kat Potente, who is eager to decode via programming language the secret of Mister Penumbra's books.

These characters reflect backward, in my reading, to the narrator of Borges's story who states that the books in the library add up to a "terrible meaning." It is in search of this meaning that, early on, the narrator tells us, "I have wandered in my youth; I have traveled in search of a book."

Before reaching Sloan's novel, I was inclined to take this statement at face value, but after reading Mister Penumbra's Bookstore, I asked myself, "What is the narrator searching for?"

Especially since the incoherent books in Borges's novel and those in Sloan's book share one quality. Neither seems to be about anything. In Penumbra's store, they seem to be one long line of code sliced up into individual books, and in Borges's library they are meaningless blocks of letters that, like the printout of a computer's core code, may only means anything to someone with the right "eye."

And while Borges's librarian is searching for the right book, I always wondered why he didn't float away, inasmuch as there is no apparent source of gravity in the Library of Babel. It's a question that didn't present an answer until I was well along in Sloan's novel. At one point, the bookcase is being meticulously photographed in order to recreate it as a 3D model on a computer screen. Clay is present at the all-night photography session, and near dawn he thinks that the computer modeling "might match the store's volume but never its density." That's it, I thought: Borges's library, the volume and weight of its books is its gravity.

I enjoyed Sloan's novel, but it too lacked the gravity, or gravitas, of a novel that is a descendant of Borges's library, and yet it respects the mystery of Borges's story, its meaning, if there is one, that remains ineffable. In one scene, the googler Kat Potente schedules an all-out, computerized assault on the mystery behind Penumbra's bookstore. But despite using all the wizardly contained in dozens of laptops trying to break the code at the same time, the mystery is not solved. This, in a sense, is the ultimate tribute to Borges's wandering librarian that life, as Sloan stated to the audience on the night he appeared in Pasadena, is not, as many Google people think, "a problem to be solved," or at least one to be solved by the application of a stringent code. "It's good to find a coffee shop on your own," he added, and perhaps the discovery of life's small truths is to be found in Borges's librarians wandering, erratic way. And if not, perhaps the search itself is enough for us.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired sub teacher who lives in Los Angeles. His essays "Irrealism and the visual arts, "The waking dream: a review of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled," "Irrealism and ambient music," "Irreal expedition: a review of Zachary Mason's Lost Books of the Odyssey," "Avatars of the Labyrinth," and Architectural traits of the immortals," have appeared previously in irreal (re)views. A selection of these essays appeared in our print anthology, The Irreal Reader: Fiction & Essays from the Cafe Irreal (Guide Dog Books 2013). A broader range of his published work (fiction and essays) are viewable at www.garrettrowlan.com.

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