McBurglar and the Man O’War

The year after I graduated from BGSU with my undergrad I stuck around Bowling Green, Ohio, trying to figure out what was next. The most important thing I’d learned in five years earning my bachelor’s of music was that I didn’t want to be a musician (a thing I maybe should have thought about before spending five years of my life earning a degree, but then, life’s made in the mistakes, amirite?).

In any case, I got a job working at the local McDonald’s, in my apparent quest to live as a walking cliche (I would later work several years as a barista while earning my writing cred in the continuation of this admirable goal). For almost a year, I worked the overnight shift at a small town, 24-hour restaurant. It wasn’t as miserable a gig as you might think, and it accomplished the ultimate task of giving me brain-space to think about my next step—and, as an added bonus, gave me lots of material that would eventually become the anchor novella in my thesis collection.

This post is partially a story about how the seemingly insignificant things we do in our lives can circle back and have value beyond what we ever imagined. It’s also partially shameless self-promotion, because that novella, called McBurglar and the Man O’War, is currently being serialized by Novella-T (that’s a link to it, if you want to check it out). It’s the largest thing I’ve gotten published to date, word-count wise, a story that evolved over the course of several years and drafts, and a story that never would have happened if I hadn’t spent a year aimlessly working fast food with a college degree and no clue of what I wanted to do with my life.

Eternal optimist that I am, I’ll call this proof of one adage I embrace whole-heartedly: No time is wasted if you learn something from it. Even time that leaves you smelling like fry grease.

 

The second time around

So I’ve been re-watching Orange is the New Black in preparation for the next season’s release and it’s got me thinking about the value of the re-watch (or the re-read or the re-play, as the situation may be).

The first time through any fictional landscape is exciting. It’s a journey of discovery. There’s inherent value and interest in its newness that can make up for (or perhaps simply obscure) the less than stellar aspects of the world. The second pass seems to me the true test of the work’s merit. The surprise factor is gone; you’ll only enjoy the experience if the world is strong enough to stand without it.

Having said that, not all re-watches are created equal. I can think of seven distinct reasons why I return to familiar worlds:

1) Mastery. This game or book or show is such a well-constructed world that I want to spend my time there. Often mastery in the characters for shows and books, and mastery of the gameplay with a video game.

2) Re-immersion. The preparation that happens before a new installment of a currently active series. More of an undertaking with books than shows or movies, which isn’t to say I haven’t done it (Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire are the ones that come to mind).

3) Nostalgia. There are games with very low practical re-play value that I keep coming back to because they feel like childhood or college, and shows I circle back to often for the same reasons.

4) Research. Far more common with books than any other kinds of media. Often I’m reading for a specific aspect of that book (world-building, voice, language, character development, etc) and because of that, this is the category most likely to alter the way I experience the world on the second take.

5) Comfort. AKA the Background Noise Re-watch, and as such only applicable to movies and TV. I find animated cartoons and sitcoms tend to fall into this category. Also crime dramas, like CSI or Law and Order—pretty much anything with the kind of plot you can follow half paying attention.

6) Completionist re-do. Typically with games, some of which I’ve dedicated an obscene number of hours to in the quest for 100% completion (I’m looking at you, Civilization II). Occasionally also with TV shows if I watched it the first time in syndication and want to see it again in order.

6) Because WTF. Twin Peaks is an example of this one. On the second watch, I was looking for clues and details, trying to make some sense of what I’d seen. A few books have taken me a couple passes before I really felt like I had a grip on them—House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski is the first one that comes to mind.

…there’s a lot you can learn from spending time in a familiar world. Looking at my current habits, I’m far more likely to re-watch a TV show or re-play a video game than I am to re-read a book—and I think that’s probably a shame. The second read opens new avenues for understanding. You take your time more, mulling over the lines that jump out at you, making connections, seeing how the author built her protagonist, set up the climax, developed the themes—these are things you may not notice until you have the full context of the conclusion. The first read is visceral; on the second, I can let myself look through the story at the framework the author laid for it.

As I said, though, I’m more likely to re-watch a show, and I’ve got two multi-season re-watches going right now—Star Trek: The Next Generation along with Orange is the New Black. In the case of the former, it’s part completionist re-do, part world-building research. My original intent with the latter was simply a re-immersion watch; I was initially only going to go through the third season to get my bearings. But the first two seasons are just too good to skip. It’s mastery at the character level that took me all the way back to episode one: all of them deeply flawed, many of them inherently good, all of them dealing with their own really bad life choices in hilarious ways.

When a world is good, re-watching a series is like hanging out with old friends you haven’t seen in a while. A good world makes you feel like you belong there, whether it’s the bridge of a starship or a federal prison.

Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel

wtnv-book-cover
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel
Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
401 pages
Harper Perennial

 

tl;dr summary: The surreal world of Night Vale finally arrives on the page, in all its terrible, absurd beauty.

Read this if you like: The Hitchhiker’s Guide series, Borderlands, Terry Pratchett

 

I fell in love with the Welcome to Night Vale podcasts from the first episode I listened to (ep 1.02, “Glow Cloud,” which is to this day one of my favorites) but I honestly wasn’t sure how well the world would translate to a novel. I can’t speak to how it would read if you’ve never listened to the podcasts—there are a number of in-jokes and references that you won’t get if you’re a Night Vale newbie—but as a supplement to and expansion of the world already created, this book is brilliant.

It was a smart choice not to use the familiar figure of Cecil as a narrator (for newcomers, he’s the Night Vale community radio personality who narrates the aforementioned podcasts). His voice is inherently suited to the role of storyteller. He’s a first-person observer; this book needed third-person participants. Not that Cecil is left out entirely; the transmissions of Cecil’s radio show scattered between the chapters in “The Voice of Night Vale” segments walk the same line between absurd humor and plot progression that the podcasts do so well.

The two protagonists followed in the narrative are perfect Night Vale residents, as achingly human as they are wonderfully absurd. We have Jackie, the perpetual 19-year-old who runs Night Vale’s pawn shop, and Diane, the single mother of a teenage shapeshifter son, named Josh. There are cameos by most of the regular characters on Cecil’s radio braodcasts—Old Woman Josie (and the Erikas) play a prominent role, as does the Man in the Tan Jacket; Mayor Cardinal, Steve Carlsberg, the Faceless Old Woman, and Carlos also make appearances. All are used well to move the story forward, which is at its heart a shared journey of discovery centered around Troy (Josh’s absent father) and the elusive town of King City (in the Night Vale world, a town can indeed be elusive).

I’ve been trying to pinpoint just what it is I find so enchanting about the voice here. I’m pretty tickled by the narrative fourth-wall breaks using the “you” voice in the initial introduction to the town and characters. It’s in the descriptive passages that the voice is at its best. Everything is described both as if you’ve never seen it before and as if you understand what it is perfectly well, whether that thing is a family house or a waitress that’s a tree. Purposeful repetition of key phrases and ideas helps make the strange and the not-strange feel like pieces of the same whole. There’s a passage in chapter 8 (p 72) when the reader’s given the Troy/Diane relationship backstory that to me exemplifies all of these aspects:

Imagine a teenager named Troy.
That’s not bad. He’s a bit less athletic, but it doesn’t matter. Troy looked like what he thought he looked like. Troy always looked exactly how he thought he looked. He never loved Diane until they met. Then he always loved her. Until later, when he never loved her.
“I will always love you,” he sometimes said.
Later he didn’t say this at all. He wasn’t even there to say it.

…it’s a delightful piece of flash fiction taken out of context like that. The repetition/juxtaposition of always and never presents the relationship in its whole in such a way that we don’t even need the details. And I think that’s ultimately what draws me in about the voice: the delicious contradiction, the way it normalizes the strange and bizarrifies the normal.

The absurdity is necessary, in the sense that the plot would have to be altered if it were removed (in other words, it’s not weird just to be weird). At the same time, the absurdity doesn’t matter. Josh is a boy who wants to meet his father. Diane is a mother protecting her child. That Josh is a shapeshifter or that there’s multiple Troy’s or that their family house is sentient—these are wonderful details, but the story stands without them.

Night Vale is like any isolated small town. Night Vale is nothing like any town you’ve ever known. You might miss a few moments if you’ve never listened to the podcasts, but the story is self-contained enough (and the world fleshed out enough) to stand alone. If you’re an avid listener, it’s a chance to get a street-level perspective of Night Vale, the day to day mundanities that don’t make it onto Cecil’s radio broadcast. Either way, it’s a world you want to spend time inhabiting.