Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel
Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor
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.