Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Harper Perennial: 2015.
It’s a book review? Whaaaat?
Yes that’s right, a book review! (And it’s spoiler-free!)
Pleasure reading has been slow going lately because I’ve been doing a lot of school reading that’s beyond what’s assigned (*nerd*), and the book I’m currently working on for pleasure, The Circle, is going to take me a while to get through (for reasons I will surely talk about when I review it). I also had to stop and read the Fantastic Beasts screenplay, which was delightful, and I’ll probably post about it shortly. ANYWAY.
Welcome to Night Vale is a novel based on the popular podcast of the same name. The novel is written by the writers of the podcast and features many of the same characters, but its story is original and separate from the show. I was a listener of the podcast before the book was announced, though I am very far from being caught up. I’ve listened to maybe 50-ish of the episodes and absolutely love it. I’m not really a podcast person in general because they are hard to fit in my typical life routine, but I’ll listen when I can.
The Welcome to Night Vale podcast is narrated as if you are a citizen of the town of Night Vale and you are listening to the community radio station. You get updates on the news of the town from Cecil Baldwin, the voice of Night Vale. But Night Vale is not an ordinary town: the happenings reported in the news include hostile takeovers by a Glow Cloud that rains dead animals down on the city, mysterious hooded figures that walk around the dog park with no discernable purpose, and a heated mayoral campaign in which one of the candidates is literally a 5-headed dragon. Some of my favorite characters include the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home and Carlos, the scientist.
Have I sold you yet?
If you are planning to pick up the novel, I suggest you get a taste of the podcast first, but it is definitely not necessary to listen to any of it in order to enjoy or understand the book. You can easily do one or the other first, but I took extra joy in the little details from the podcast that were included in the novel. The novel is not narrated like the podcast, but there are a few chapters interspersed in the text that are transcripts from the radio, reporting on events in the book. If you’ve listened to the show, you can’t help but read these sections in Cecil’s soothing baritone.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how fantastic this book is. I’m sure I’m not the only person who was skeptical that Night Vale could be pulled off in novel form, but it was. It very much was.
The biggest surprise for me was how excellent the character development is. The story follows two main characters, Diane and Jackie, who as far as I know are not main characters in the podcast. The development of these two characters was insanely good, given the type of story and writing style that characterize both the Night Vale podast and the book.
What are that story and writing style like? Well, in short, you can’t really expect anything when reading or listening to Night Vale. The humor that the writers use is odd and definitely an acquired taste – it’s not for everyone. Sometimes the “punch lines” and plot developments make absolutely no sense at all and are completely unexpected, and other times they are completely mundane and exactly what you would expect. It’s a quirky humor that is difficult to describe, but I think the best word for it is absurdist. I’m constantly laughing at loud at the podcast and found myself doing the same with the book. But within that type of tone and story structure where literally anything can happen, I wasn’t sure how well the characters would actually resonate with the reader. But the characters resonate beautifully.
Absurdity is still present in full force in the Night Vale novel, but the story is also an incredibly heart-warming one about Diane’s relationship to her teenage son (who is a shape-shifter) and Jackie’s personal growth and development. Each woman goes on a journey of self-discovery, even though the plot is absurdist. I deeply felt for both of these women and empathized with what they were going through, even though what they were going through makes absolutely no sense at all in any sort of reality. That is the magic of this book.
I haven’t actually read Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass, but I imagine fans of Lewis Carol would enjoy Night Vale. Also The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fans would take well to Night Vale. I’m not really sure what other things to compare it to because it’s just uniquely Night Vale. Fink and Cranor did an excellent job of taking a weird universe we knew from a radio show and establishing a very human novel, despite its alien world and circumstances. 5 stars, no question.