Welcome to Night Vale (Novel)
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Release Date: October 20, 2015
Back in September, we did our first (and so far only) Podcast Corner on the amazing "Welcome to Night Vale" podcast. "Welcome to Night Vale" details the bizarre day-to-day life of the residents of the fictitious desert city, as described to us by its local community radio host Cecil Palmer. Last fall, podcast writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor released Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, an original tale set in the city where weird is normal, and normal is relative.
The Man in the Tan Jacket, who often appears in the podcast despite the fact that no one can remember him or his features, has reappeared in Night Vale. He's giving residents a piece of paper that says nothing but "King City," and whenever someone receives this piece of paper, they're unable to rid themselves of it: throwing it away, burning it, ripping it to shreds, etc. always leads to it reappearing in their hands, undisturbed. Such is the fate of one of the two main characters of the novel, the 19-year-old pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro. This paper has upended her life in a big way, so she sets out to discover the mystery of KIng City and the Man in the Tan Jacket before she loses herself completely. Meanwhile, Diane Crayton is having trouble connecting with her teenaged son Josh, who is a literal shapeshifter. Josh has become obsessed with learning about his estranged father, a man that Diane has no reason or desire to ever see again. Except now she is seeing him, because somehow he's everywhere. Diane and Jackie's paths cross as they both move through Night Vale looking for answers, until they realize that what they've been looking for the whole time might be located miles away in the mysterious King City.
Even though Cecil is not a major character in the novel, he appears several times in little vignettes called "The Voice of Night Vale" that appear at the end of chapters. These are essentially transcripts of the radio show as it's being played, often giving us clues and details to what Jackie and Diane are doing, and are welcome little additions to the book.
The actual storylines are not what you would expect from the podcast. Diane is a late-30's early 40's single mother of a teenaged boy, and she has made raising him her entire world and existence. She works a crappy job for him, takes part in PTA as treasurer for him... every choice she makes is for Josh. She is not a hero scientist like Carlos, or one of the millions of other iterations that a story like this would have as a protagonist. She is a struggling mother, trying to understand and protect her child at the same time. Meanwhile, Jackie is a person who can't (or won't) grow up, and has been stuck at 19 while all of her peers have moved on to older ages and families. She's not just 19 physically, but mentally as well, and despite running her own business, she still can't handle people looking down on her for being young, or choosing to be so. Both Diane and Jackie have wildly different points of views on life, each from a different stage of their lives, and their emotions and complexities are beautifully illustrated against the weird backdrop of Night Vale. It doesn't matter how strange their town is, their hopes, dreams, and fears are all very, very real. Jackie and Diane are not your typical protagonists, and for that I applaud authors Fink and Cranor.
Where Welcome to Night Vale suffers, however, is in its lack of focus. It wants to be everything to all people by telling an original story while appealing to the die-hard fans of the show. In a way it succeeds: Jackie and Diane's exploration of the town unravels the world only described to us briefly by Cecil. We meet Carlos in his lab, visit City Hall and the mayor's office, eat invisible pie at the Moonlite All-Nite Diner, experience the closed hospital, and even spend a few harrowing chapters in the dreaded library. Fans of the podcast rarely get full descriptions of these places, so in a way we are experiencing them for the first time. But the novel's insistence on referencing events, jokes, and characters from the podcast take away from the story that Jackie and Diane are experiencing. It distracts from, and bogs down, their overarching narrative, which is a shame because we're picking up the novel because we love Night Vale, not despite it. At times it feels as if sections were added or expanded to cater to exploring Night Vale, and it's not until we actually leave the city in the final few chapters that the novel really takes off.
The book is written a lot like the podcast, using a lot of its stylizations including repetition and eerie asides that are a mix of the Twilight Zone and Douglas Adams. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, this style doesn't really translate well to written prose. It begins to grow tiring when dialogue and events are constantly interrupted or punctuated by constant non sequiturs and observations (clever as they may be). Characterization also suffers because despite the authors' clever word use, they simply cannot write dialogue. With a few exceptions (Jackie and Steve Carlsberg for example), most of the dialogue does little to give characters their own voices. In the end, I don't think anyone unfamiliar with the podcast would understand this novel or enjoy it at all, and that is a severe fault.
I think there's a story with real heart buried in here, but it's hiding under the weight of its audio predecessor. I don't think this means that Night Vale is a place that can only exist in podcast form, but right now I see little evidence to support leaving that format. If you're a Night Vale fan, I do recommend adding a point to my rating and maybe checking it out when you can, but it's definitely not a priority.