reviews

Book review: Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

It is easy to make up weird stuff. It is harder to write a whole novel of weirdness that maintains some form of internal consistency so that we, humans living in a world that sets the standard for normalcy, can draw meaning from it, a meaning that connects to our own ordinary world.

I am pleased, impressed, and not entirely surprised that Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor pulled this trick off.

I’ve been listening to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast since the summer of 2013. It wasn’t love at first listen, but after the Sandstorm episodes in season one (also the first occasion Cecil really modulates his voice to squeal over some kittens on the internet), I was hooked.

What I appreciate so much about this novelization of the world they created (aside from a wholly new and original plot that delves into one of the many mysterious characters who reappear in the podcast) is that the central figures are two women: one teenager, one single mother. There are some great women in the podcast, but none with a starring role. Jackie and Diane are distinct characters who are at odds for the first half of the book, and it’s clear why. Most especially, I’m impressed with how well the authors captured the passion and heartache of a single mom and her teenage son.

Some quotes to capture what I mean by weird stuff (more specifically, delightful whimsy) that also draws meaning from our own world, or is just fun:

The only pawnshop in the town of Night Vale is run by the very young Jackie Fierro. It has no name, but if you need it, you will know where it is. This knowledge will come suddenly, often while you are in the shower. You will collapse, surrounded by a bright glowing blackness, and you will find yourself on your hands and knees, the warm water running over you, and you will know where the pawnshop is. You will smell musk and soap, and feel a stab of panic about how alone you are. It will be like most showers you’ve taken.

*

Josh often got frustrated with his mother. This was because Diane was not the best teacher. This was also because Josh was not the best student. There were other reasons as well.

“Josh, you need to listen to me,” Diane would say.

“I get it. I get it, okay,” Josh would say, not getting it at all.

Diane enjoyed arguing with Josh about driving, because it was time spent talking, having a relationship. It was not easy, being a mother to a teenager. Josh enjoyed this time too, but not consciously. On the surface, he was miserable. He just wanted to drive a car, not do all the things it takes to be able to drive a car, like having a car and learning to drive it.

*

Diane hurt. She was not consciously aware that she hurt, but she hurt. “Josh,” she said, so many times a day, for so many different reasons.

Josh loved his mother but he did not know why.

Diane loved her son and she did not care why.

*

Cecil Palmer spoke of the horrors of everyday life. Nearly every broadcast told a story of impending doom or death, or worse: a long life lived in fruitless fear of doom or death. It wasn’t that Jackie wanted to know all of the bad news of the world. It was that she loved sitting in the dark of her bedroom, swaddled in blankets and invisible radio waves.

*

Last night, at a press conference, the City Council reminded everyone that the Dog Park is there for our community enjoyment and use, and so it is important that no one enter, look at, or think about the Dog Park. They are adding a new advanced camera system to keep an eye on the great black walls of the Dog Park at all times, and if anyone is caught trying to enter it, they will be forced to enter it, and will never be heard from again. If you see hooded figures in the Dog Park, no you didn’t. The hooded figures are perfectly safe, and should not be approached at any costs. The City Council ended the conference by devouring a raw potato in quick, small bites of their sharp teeth and rough tongues. No follow-up questions were asked, although there were a few follow-up screams.

*

Most people in Night Vale know there is information that is forbidden or unavailable, which is almost all information. Most people in Night Vale get by with a cobbled-together framework of lies and assumptions and conspiracy theories. Diane was like most people. Most people are.

*

When people asked what she did for a living, Diane would say, “I work in an office. What do you do?” And then she would guide interesting conversations about their lives, or she would talk about Josh. Raising Josh was what she did for a living, and the office work just allowed her to do that.

*

She left the shower as most people leave showers, clean and a little lonely.

*

The used car salesmen were fast and ravenous, and sometimes a person who meant only to leave their car would leave much more than that.

*

“The search for truth takes us to dangerous places,” said Old Woman Josie. “Often it takes us to that most dangerous place: the library. You know who said that? No? George Washington did. Minutes before librarians ate him.”

*

As Diane became a teenager, she continued to hear not only about her race but also about her body.

*

[another Cecil broadcast]

“…And a big thank-you to local scientist, certified genius, and, oh yeah, my boyfriend, Carlos, who came by earlier to explain clouds. Need something explained in language that for all you know could be scientific? Feel free to drop by Carlos’s lab. Sometimes he’ll be there. Sometimes it’s date night, and he’s with me. I am his boyfriend. I don’t know if I mentioned that.”

*

Because Cecil talked openly on his radio show about Carlos, their relationship was a point of near-constant discussion in Night Vale, all of their imperfections and faults, which made them individuals worth loving. They had built those faults into the usual messy, comfortable, patched-up, beautiful structure that any functioning long-term relationship ended up being.

*

Monday will be free-sample day at the Sheraton Funeral Home.

*

“Diane, I need you to leave the office. You’re not fired or anything. We never fire anyone here. Let’s call it a ‘permanent unpaid leave’ while I consult the relevant agencies.”

Diane couldn’t make herself believe what was happening, even as she completely understood it. Her life was changing, here in front of her, so casually, and in a few simple words.

*

Diane and Jackie quietly read the clippings on the wall, displayed around a large, well-used hatchet. It was one of many hatchets Leann Hart kept as part of her [newspaper] business. It was a failing business, but Leann kept it alive.

*

Diane flipped through the day’s mail as Cecil continued on. It didn’t matter what he said. The world is terrifying. It always is. But Cecil reminded her that it was okay to relax in a terrifying world.

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