From the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a novel about a software engineer at a soulless San Francisco robotics company who inherits a very special type of sourdough starter culture that opens up a whole new world for her.
Robin Sloan’s delightful new novel, Sourdough, the follow-up to his runaway success Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, displays both lightness and a yearning for escape, but only in the best sense. It is that rare thing: a satire that has a love of what it satirizes while also functioning as a modern fairy tale about, of all things, the magic of certain carbohydrates … Despite the proliferation of many interesting Loises in Sloan’s story, though, there is really only one Lois for me: the narrator, Computer Lois, who tells a sure-footed and lovely tale of being gifted with a strange sourdough starter … Once we’re past the setup, Sloan continues the high-wire balancing act of including satire with his fairy tale, all with an astounding conciseness and sure-footedness.
[Sourdough] is a beautiful, small, sweet, quiet book. It knows as much about the strange extremes of food as Mr. Penumbra did about the dark latitudes of the book community ... I love that because Sloan has a pop-culture brain, and he gave it to Lois. Because his voice in her head and her mouth fits so beautifully into the time and place and moment he is writing about. Because he imbues everything about Lois's journey with mythic overtones, with rules and lessons gleaned not from school or church or elders, but from our entertainment. From stories.
Lois’ turnaround is satisfying to watch — who doesn’t want all their problems solved by the simple act of baking? — but it goes down a little too easy, more like artificially flavored candy than a loaf of whole wheat ... But after Lois learns a thing or two about how to really live, Sloan’s story expands into something decidedly, and delightfully, weirder ... sustenance-related tales resonate throughout the story until food itself comes across as a sort of grand, delicious imprint of humanity. What Sourdough isn’t concerned about are topical conflicts in food today — characters touch on the follies of industrialized food production, boutique organic farms and GMOs, but only briefly. Instead, whatever lessons we might draw from Sourdough are more personal, ambiguous and hard to extract: having humility, perhaps, or an open mind. And even then, the novel defies clear-cut analysis. It pushes us to do something simpler, to wonder at the weird beauty, set down in Sloan’s matter-of-fact prose, of life — or at least marvel at the strange sights and tastes of a familiar world embellished by a particularly inventive mind.