‘Night Vale’ stays weird with debut novel, pleases fans

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If you’re no stranger to Night Vale, then Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s debut novel, titled after their science-fiction podcast “Welcome to Night Vale,” may feel a bit like coming home. The show’s wildly imaginative yet comfortably familiar landscape is the backdrop for a funny and touching coming-of-age story.

On the other hand, if you’re new to the friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful and mysterious lights pass overhead while everyone pretends to sleep, well, it may take a while to adjust to the weirdness, but don’t let that discourage you.

Warped science fiction meets small-town malaise in the dual narratives of “Welcome to Night Vale.” Two women are delivered an unsettling piece of paper that proves impossible to destroy or even let go of, and the message reads just two words: King City. A series of strange events that follow turns their lives upside down, and they must work together to set things right again. Diane Crayton, one of the protagonists, is a hardworking single mom of a shape-shifting 15-year-old boy. Jackie Fiero, who’s been 19 for a few decades (or centuries) and is tired of people asking when she’s going to grow up, is the other unlikely but wholly likable heroine.

Although the writers have spent years producing a large volume of short scripts, they have managed to craft a stand-alone book that keeps momentum and doesn’t peter off into too many bizarre digressions (a hallmark of the podcast). The plot, while simple, holds strong and captivating throughout the book, and it provides plenty of room for poignant character development.

For readers familiar with the podcast, they will immediately fall into a sense of homecoming. Casual references are made right off the bat to classic “Night Vale” fixtures: the Glow Cloud on the PTA board (all hail), the Faceless Old Woman Who Lives in Your Home, mind-controlling orange juice, bloodthirsty librarians. Some lines of text also pop out as sound bytes from the show. Yet instead of simply rehashing old content, these mentions come across as less of an inside joke and more of a foundation — a base mythology — for the strange and magical town.

As distant from reality as Night Vale may be, the novel meditates on relatable themes of ennui and isolation. Diane feels fragmented and frustrated by the abandonment of her son’s father. Jackie wishes for a purpose other than managing her mom’s pawn shop. They consider challenges of growing up and issues of complicated family relationships, and they wonder how to trust themselves when everyone else says otherwise.

Plots in various podcast episodes come secondhand to the overall world-shaping devised by Fink and Cranor. While the core of the book lies in its perfectly sound storyline — for Diane and Jackie to reach King City and figure out how to make their lives “normal” again — the book’s charm also lies in the little details. The magic is in the quips and phrases that turn and twist a normal image into something deeper, scarier, more joyful, more profound.

The novel may be initially challenging or confusing for nonfans to digest. It’s a solid novel — fast moving and sturdily written — but so much of its humor is based in little recognitions of enchanting Night Vale absurdities. On the flip side, it provides an excellent introduction to a town everyone should get the chance to explore.

“Welcome to Night Vale” was released Tuesday in hardcover, eBook, CD and digital audiobook. The authors will be speaking at the Castro Theater in San Francisco on Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Sarah Goldwasser writes the Thursday column on performing arts. Contact her at [email protected].
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