Night vale is a podcast whose primary purpose is, as far as I can tell, being as weird as possible. There’s a certain quality to their writing, one that with a sort of “modern gothic” vibe- in the world of Night vale, the ordinary is strange, and anything can be bizarre. I’ve never listened to Nightvale’s podcast (the main characters voice, inexplicably, grates my ears), but for a while it swept the Internet, so I consider myself fairly informed as to the basics. In 2015, Night Vale put out a novel that shared the name of the podcast: Welcome to Night Vale. Auditory distress aside, I had enough interest to pick the book up.
In hardcover, nonetheless! It’s a lovely cover, a beautiful looking book, and doesn’t require prior knowledge of the podcast to read, though some characters from the radio show do appear. The plot is promising: A Man in a Tan Jacket is appearing throughout the small desert town of Night Vale, distributing papers which only say ‘King City’, and which you are unable to get rid of. Local pawnshop owner/eternally 19-year-old Jackie is determined to figure out who he is, while PTA member Diane has to deal with her shape shifting teenage son and the sudden, many reappearances of his father.
While not a fan of the podcast, the novel sounded delightfully interesting, half surreal and half human. The only problem is that it quickly became apparent it was too weird.
For those unfamiliar with the source material, it can be rather hard to explain- but the book goes on tangents about things which may or may not exist, and takes great pleasure in lying about things, stopping the action to talk about some irrelevant detail, or just plain having something utterly bizarre happen that changes the plot. This is the point of Night Vale, sort of the signature move: being strange, and half funny. Scenes would stretch to fit these off-shoots, rather than be build around them. The story itself, again very cool in concept, was buried and distracted by the need to be strange.
The problem is that Night Vale is a twenty minute podcast, and this is a 400 page book. It gets tiring pretty quickly, especially in the beginning when the novel feels it has space to screw around. Some of the tangents are half-funny, well written, or a nice concept- but by 50% in I was concerned I’d never get answers.
The humor, too, gets tiring fast. The joke is at first ‘oh, this town is weird! There’s angels (all named Erika), scientists are treated like a different species, the mayor is a five-headed dragon’. This stuff is cool, funny, etc. But 400 pages of essencially the same ‘this place is strange’ joke begins to lose its charm. Especially if you read it in a day or two, you’ll be quick to wise it’d focus more on the story.
Without consistency, there can be no stakes. Anything weird can happen at any time, and while I still wanted answers about King City and the hundreds of versions of Diane’s ex-boyfriend that were popping up around town, it felt like the book was going to cop out. Everything else it raised was simply so ungrounded that I couldn’t expect anything sincere. It’s hard to make a reader care when there’s little to latch onto that’s recognizable to our reality. This is attempted through emotional arcs of the main characters, but the rest of the world is such a mess that I couldn’t quite care about their problems.
The problem, to simplify, is that it’s hard to feel like anything is at stake when anything could happen at any time. There is no danger when an ex machina could show up to solve whatever problem is going on (and in appearing, of course, get a page long tangent, and then never show up again.)
The ultimate resolution and climax- barring an extended, confounding detour at a hospital- is pretty good. Yes, there are plenty of answers. Mysteries are solved while still being weird. There’s some good writing, some well handled emotional details, and I generally quite enjoyed it. Only one heavy handed event- something that feels like an attempted to elicit a ‘yeah girl!’ moment rather than handle the plot in a sensible way- gets in my way.
There are a lot of clever ideas in Night Vale, a lot of unique phrases, and a novel was not a bad idea. But, unfortunately, it is too convoluted for the emotional beats to hit. Simply put, yes, a book can be too weird– even if that’s the point.