It’s been more than a year since I did an Is Our Writer’s Learning? post, but WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (cover by Rob Wilson, all rights with current holder) is a perfect book to resume, precisely because it’s a curate’s egg (a British reference that means some parts are very good) so there’s plenty to learn.
The story: The novel is set in the same town as the creators’ smash-hit podcasts (which I haven’t listened to). Jackie Fierro, a pawnbroker who stopped aging at nineteen, is content doing business according to her time-honored rituals (“There will first be some handwashing, which is why there are bowls of purified water throughout the shop.”). Then she receives a slip of paper with “King City” written on it, and to her horror, cannot get it out of her hand. She can burn it, throw it away, cut it to shreds, but it comes back. Meanwhile, office drone Diane Crayton has her own problems: a coworker has vanished and apparently never existed; she’s seeing her ex-husband everywhere, literally; and her fifteen-year-old son Josh is well, a teenager. Inevitably, the two women’s respective problems turn out to be related, and King City is where they both need to get answers. If they can only find a way out of Night Vale ..
The parts that were good: As I mentioned writing about the fifth Harry Potter, details count for a lot in fantasy and Night Vale is all about the details. It’s a place where clouds are created to hide the UFOs hovering overhead, there’s a faceless old woman living in Diane’s house, people visit the pawnbroker after a moment of existential angst “A stab of panic about how alone you are—it will be like most showers you’ve taken.”) and plastic flamingos can hurl you back in time. The library is a Hellmouth. During a visit to a video rental store, Jackie and Diane drop some tapes. They crack and there’s nothing inside but moist dirt and crawling insects. A city board randomly changes the meaning of words. The details are awesome.
The book also has great weird scenes, and some good lines (“People are just deaths that haven’t happened yet.”).
But then there’s the setting: Rowling, as noted at the link above, has great detail, but it fits in with her world. Night Vale isn’t a world, it’s a big accumulation of weird detail piled atop weird detail. I enjoy all the details, and in short podcast doses I think I’d love the details, but at novel length it’s obvious “there’s no there there.” Night Vale has no substance; it has no internal logic that makes me believe all the weird things can co-exist in one town (and I’ve been reading Marvel and DC since I was six, so I have no problems believing that gods, androids, African monarchs and mutants all coexisting on the same team). It’s like sketch comedy stretched out to feature film length.
And also the characters: I like that in Night Vale everyone calmly accepts the insane facts of life, but again, this doesn’t work so well stretched to 400 pages. Jackie and Diane are phlegmatic about a lot of what goes on; Jackie knows she’s stayed young for some reason while her friends have aged and grown away from her, but she’s just resigned to it. It’s hard for me to care if the characters don’t. And while Jackie freaking over the accursed paper is a nice touch (it reminds me of a Kafka story where a bachelor is constantly followed by two bouncing rubber balls), at 400 pages it feels, again, like a gimmick more than something substantial (Kafka’s story was short).
So I think I learned quite a bit from this. And don’t get me wrong, I liked it, but I don’t think Fink and Cranor transitioned from podcast to book as smoothly as they should have.