Thursday, January 7, 2016

The 'Welcome to Night Vale' Novel Is Weird, Human, and Overall Good

Here's the thing about Night Vale: it's so different from the world we live in, so fundamentally bizarre and frightening and insane, that it's easy to forget how familiar it is too. It's easy to get caught up in the weirdness of the story, but when we do that we end up missing the actual point. In a lot of ways, Welcome to Night Vale is about how that surface level stuff is just surface. While the circumstances in Night Vale are different than the circumstances anywhere else in the world, the heart of the problems is the same. People are people wherever you go, even when those people are omnipotent glow clouds or shape-shifting teenagers or possibly immortal radio hosts.

The Welcome to Night Vale Novel gets this in a way that the podcast seldom has a chance to explore. I think a lot of that is simply due to the change in format. Because the podcasts have to be separated into bite-sized chunks for a general audience who may or may not have listened to all the podcasts before this, there's less opportunity to tell a single story and reach a high level of emotional resonance with it. As a result, the podcasts tend to focus more on the external weirdness of Night Vale.

This novel, by virtue of being, well, a novel, has more of a chance to go deep on the themes the podcast only touches on, and as a result it's really really good. I'm getting that out of the way now so you don't have to spend the whole article wondering: the Welcome to Night Vale novel is very good.

What makes it good is this intentional shift from fixing our gaze on the weirdness of Night Vale to looking at the normality of it. While episodes of the podcast tend to follow particular events in the city, most of the book is actually about normal life as a Night Vale citizen. And oh hell yes, it is just as weird as you could have hoped. But it's also just as normal as you wouldn't have suspected.

For those of you already out of your depths, let's backtrack for a second and explain. Welcome to Night Vale is a podcast and now a traveling show and also a novel about a small, strange town in the Southwest named Night Vale. It's a lot like if you were to listen to the old Garrison Keillor standby Prairie Home Companion being beamed in from the Twilight Zone.

Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the podcast is essentially a series of community news updates from the small fictional town of Night Vale. Each twenty-minute episode is about some new thing happening in the town, like a new dog park opening or the community college pledge drive or the summer reading program. Only instead of those all being things we are comfortable and familiar with, in Night Vale they're all twisted and askew. So the dog park ends up being a vast government conspiracy to create meeting places for the "mysterious hooded figures" that roam the town. The community college pledge drive is overrun by thousands of donations of giant rabbits. The summer reading program is actually a bid by the carnivorous eldritch beasts that call themselves "librarians" to get more food.

Everything in Night Vale is a little bit what we don't expect it to be.

The podcast became incredibly popular a few years back, spawning a traveling show and now this novel, which takes place in the world of Night Vale at an unspecified time. Since the show is only vaguely serialized, it's not hard for the novel to fit in without having to make any clear statements about the timeline. And while the podcast is told almost exclusively from the perspective of Cecil Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin), the community news radio host in Night Vale, the book is actually about some characters we don't know all that well. Cecil is more of a background figure and occasional plot device, which is an interesting choice to make.

The story in the novel, which is also called Welcome to Night Vale and is also written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is both screwy beyond belief and also incredibly emotionally simple. So firs the screwy bit: Jackie Fierro, the perpetually nineteen owner of Night Vale's pawnshop, is perplexed to one day receive a piece of paper she cannot pawn. Normally Jackie gets pawned all sorts of things that she is totally cool with selling, even weird and terrifying things. But this little piece of paper manages to turn her world upside down, even though it only has two words on it: KING CITY.

Meanwhile, local PTA mom Diane is having a crisis of faith. Not only is she starting to get in trouble at work because she remembers a coworker who no one else can remember having worked there, her teenage son Josh has withdrawn so much that she has no idea what's going on in his life. And on top of all of this, she's been spotting Josh's biological father around town recently, which isn't at all comforting.

Jackie and Diane are our focal points for the story that follows. Eventually they find that both of their paths are taking them towards KING CITY, even if neither of them can figure out why. Of course it all turns out to be bundled up together - the man in the deerskin jacket who pawned the piece of paper, Josh's father, Diane's missing coworker - it all turns out to be part of the same story. But that's not the interesting thing, actually. The interesting thing about this book is how much it emphasizes that underneath the insanity that is Night Vale, it's not actually unfamiliar at all.

Jackie is forever-nineteen, which is weird, but it's only weird until you think of it as a literal thing. In another sense, Jackie's forever-nineteen-ness is a metaphor we all understand. I mean, she's caught in a perpetual late puberty and early adulthood. She's trapped in a life where she has some independence but no actual stability. She's become alienated from her mother - to the point of not being sure if the woman claiming to be her mother is actually her real mother - because in her attempts to build a life for herself, Jackie has gotten stuck. She's in a dead-end job in a dead-end life and she doesn't seem to have any ambition or intention of getting any older or more mature. It's weird, sure, but it's also something I think a lot of us know all too well.

And the constant cry Jackie is met with - "Why don't you just turn twenty already?" - is funny but also really resonant. From the outside, this mooring in late adolescence seems so simple. You just move on and grow up. But when you're there, it feels like the hardest thing in the world. You can't force it, it has to just happen. 

Diane's problems too are ones that feel weird but are actually really normal, human problems. She's a single mother working a job she doesn't really care about to support the son she cares about a lot. She's worried that Josh doesn't love her anymore, that he's drifting away from her and there's nothing she can do. She doesn't love all the parts of the life she built for the two of them, but she likes it more than any of the alternatives. In a lot of ways Diane is stuck too - she's trapped in her understanding of who she ought to be in the world. She has defined herself as "Josh's mother", which is complicated when you think about how Josh will eventually grow up (probably), move out, and start his own life.

Because Josh is now in high school, Diane has to begin to confront who she is outside of Josh, while also tying up the loose ends of her relationship with him. She wants him to be ready to go out into the world, but maybe not so eager. Her interactions with Josh's father, Troy, are also about Diane learning how to let Josh be his own person. This is not to say that Josh doesn't need her anymore - that's patently untrue. Just that Diane needs to learn how to figure out when Josh needs her and doesn't, and to let him make some mistakes so he can figure it out himself.

There's also a really interesting metaphor in how Josh is a shapeshifter, literally constantly shifting shapes, but Diane always knows him. No matter what identity Josh is trying on today, no matter what he looks like, he is always her son and she loves him. I think there's something very sweet in that, even if Josh finds it mostly annoying that he can never fool his mother.

At its core, this book is so incredibly human it hurts. The problems might be otherworldly and bizarre, but the emotional journey is one that most of us are already familiar with. It's two sides of the same story: what does it mean to grow up and leave childish things behind? Is there a way to do that without becoming someone we don't know or recognize?

I'm trying to be intentionally vague about some of what happens in the book because in a large way, explaining the plot of this wouldn't help you understand it. Plus, there are some really good twists and turns, so I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I mostly want you to know that this book is good and while it drags a bit in the beginning, the ending is well worth waiting for.

Sometimes weird is easy, from a storytelling perspective. Weird is easy because people have no expectations for it. It doesn't have to abide by any rules. People, on the other hand, are hard. We know people, know how they operate and think and feel, and so people are hard to get right in a story. Too many stories go heavy on the weird and light on the people, hoping that the prevailing strangeness of the story will distract from any emotional untruths. Sad to say, but on its worst days, Welcome to Night Vale the podcast is definitely guilty of this.

On its best days, however, it produces content like this book, which is big on weird, but also big on realistic and relatable human emotions. We've all been or will be nineteen and terrified of the future. We've all had to suss out our relationships to our parents whether they're around or not. We've all got to figure out who we are when the world shifts and the way we defined ourselves before is no longer valid.

Welcome to Night Vale is a book about being weird and being human and how the two are not at all unrelated. You should probably read it, that's all.


  1. I bought this for my daughter for Christmas, and she's been so excited about it that I've decided to read it once she's finished. I kind of get the impression that it's like Stuart McLean's The Vinyl Cafe, only on hallucinogens.

    1. I hope you like it! And I take it The Vinyl Cafe is good? I'll have to check it out.

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