Weird at last, weird at last, God almighty, weird at last.
Everything about the bestseller Welcome to Night Vale is unsettling. The very texture of the gorgeous twilight-colored hardback cover is too smooth. The raised letters of the title are almost slimy against the ridges of my fingers, as if written with the white tentacles of Night Vale’s Librarians themselves. Frankly, this first introduction, this simple act of touching is enough to prepare you for the exceptionally weird experience you’re about to embark on.
Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor have the amazing ability to make complete clarity of nonsense. They keep you so confounded by the events, people, and fluctuations in time/space that comprise the titular desert town that you begin to write off the events occurring as unexplainable and file them away as the citizens of Night Vale do. Then, like a punch line, the interconnectedness is there and you’re suddenly tearing through the pages faster than you thought you could because you’re having a fifty-page-long epiphany. And the things that aren’t explained? Well, welcome to Night Vale.
If you’ve never listened to the immensely popular Welcome to Night Vale Podcast, a community radio show hosted by the voice of Night Vale, Cecil Palmer, then you may not get every single reference to Old Woman Josie and her angels (who absolutely under no circumstances exist) or John Peters (you know? the farmer), but you won’t lose any of the complexity of story or the multifaceted beauty of the characters. In the interest of maintaining the same mystery of story that Cranor and Fink demanded of me, I’m not telling you anything about the plot. Being confused is part of the reading, not knowing is part of the knowing.
What I will tell you is that Night Vale is a fantastic example of casual diversity. The two main characters, Diane Crayton and Jackie Fierro, are women, one of mixed race, one of unknown race, respectively. Diane’s teenage son, Josh, is interested in boys and girls. Additionally, Cranor and Fink include non-binary genders and progressive thinking about ideas and assumptions of gender. The fantastic is an opportunity for them to explore people from all walks, classes, races, sexualities, genders, etc. Beyond issues of identity, the authors play around with form (varying between third person omniscient, third person limited, and transcript) and genre.
I would be remiss to claim that the Night Vale is genre-less. The novel fits into a very narrow category I like to call “genre fuck”: something that combines multiple forms of (in this case) narrative to create something unique. Night Vale is part mystery, part horror, part science fiction fantasy, part comedy, part road novel, and part something so distinctly Nightvalian that it’s difficult to put it into words. Any reader who thinks the novel should only be any one of an established genre is severely missing the point—Welcome to Night Vale didn’t become one of the most listened to podcasts on iTunes because it’s any one genre. Its popularity stems from a distinctive storytelling form that utilizes the abnormal and the inhuman to explore the very depths of humanity and human existence. Even though I can’t relate to Jackie’s anxiety stemming from the fact that a paper reading KING CITY is perpetually stuck to her hand, I can relate to the sentiment she feels when on page 40: “she left the shower as most people leave showers, clean and a little lonely.”
Nightvalian storytelling is often about these sound bites of stark reality within a fantastical world of shapeshifting teenagers, dog parks no one is allowed into, glow clouds that demand never-ending praise, and perpetual nineteen-year-olds. I expect this and I am still taken aback when Cranor and Fink write something like:
“…she would drive to the pawnshop, dig up the doors from where they were hidden, and replace them unlocked just in time for opening time, which was the moment her gut told her the shop should be open. She would sit there all day, doing what she did and no more than what she did, and then she would stop doing that and go home. There wasn’t much else to it, life. A person’s life is only what they do.”
It’s always sudden, and I don’t expect it, and I’m amazed that storytelling so completely acid-trip strange can lead to a philosophical claim like the one above. I fall in love every time I’m affronted by the paragraphs’ freakish beauty; I fall in love every time I’m asked to question the meaning of existence.
Ultimately the book demands much of your attention, an open mind, an intense curiosity, and an appreciation for the non-normative. If you fit the bill, don’t be surprised when you finish and you want to know more about this friendly desert community where “the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass over head while [they] all pretend to sleep.” Good news for you, there’s nearly 80 half hour podcasts, including the epilogue for the book, and multiple longer form recorded live shows for pay-what-you-can on their bandcamp site. Don’t be afraid to go outside and proclaim your weird love to the world—unless of course its street cleaning day. Then, run for your lives.
By: M. Aiken