The Welcome to Night Vale novel dances a tightrope between weird humor and real pathos
Welcome to Night Vale is the spookiest, funniest podcast on the net and now it's a book that manages the near impossible: balancing precisely on the single-molecule-thick line separating weird humor and real pathos.
Pratchett and Douglas Adams did it. Karen Joy Fowler did it in Sarah Canary. There's a lot of it in Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede. It's what made The Phantom Tollbooth such a triumph. David Lynch manages it a lot of the time, except when he doesn't.
What they did was tell stories where the balance of the bizarre and the realistic shifted from moment to moment, maintaining the precise proportions necessary to make you care about the fictional people and their troubles while still marvelling and laughing at the gags, the weirdness, the surrealism.
Welcome to Night Vale is a brilliant podcast -- one of the best things on the net, really. As Night Vale's co-creator Jeffrey Cranor explained to us, the project -- a serialized radio drama about a Twilight Zone-ish town in the middle of the desert -- has always been a labor of love and it shows.
But plays and novels are fundamentally different things. Plays are all about the subtext from the gap between what the players tell you they're feeling and what your intuition tells you they should be feeling. Novels are the reverse: a novel is explicitly set inside the heads of its characters and you get to pretend to be a telepath, reading someone else's mind. In the real world, you experience your own blooper reel and other peoples' highlight reels. Novels reverse that. Getting to lurk in the subconscious of people who are doing brave and great things, experiencing their doubts and agonies, is a fundamentally reassuring process.
Stories like Night Vale are brilliantly suited to the radio drama form. A character who experiences something weird but doesn't find it weird -- like Cecil, Night Vale's narrator, telling us in a deadpan about a school-board meeting presided over by the omnipotent Glow Cloud -- invites us to fill in the weird with our imaginations, to experience contradiction in our own imaginations. It's a powerful and giddy feeling, like an optical illusion for your emotions.
But novels are different. Once you're inside a character's head in the midst of the weird, you get explicit information about which parts of their reality are weird for them, and why. It can take on the aspect of an over-explained joke, going from genuinely weird to desperately weird. Desperation is the opposite of surrealism.
The Welcome to Night Vale novel is over 400 pages long. That's a very long time to balance on the tight-rope over the chasm of bathos, and it's a long way down.
Authors Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor make the tightrope walk look easy.
This is a marvellous book. It's a book that manages to have a real plot -- about children and their relationship to their parents, and about parents and their relationship to the world their children are growing up in -- that concerns itself with the doings of outlandish places and people (a boy who changes shape as a way of acting out his teen defiance, a young woman who has been 19 for hundreds of years, a piece of paper that no one can put down) without ever being outlandish itself. Like the podcast, the novel is full of people we love and root for, full of frightening things, and full of dramatic tension that pays off beautifully with resolutions worthy of any great tale of traditional conflict.
Shot through it all is the love and integrity that made Night Vale a success from the beginning. After 400 pages, some of Night Vale's mysteries have been laid bare, we've been initiated into new ones, and most of all, we know that we're in the midst of some wonderful people.
Excitingly (if unsurprisingly!), there's an audiobook edition. I haven't heard it yet, but I bet it's amazing.
Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel [Joseph Fink and Jeffrey A Cranor/Harper Collins]
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