Reviewed by Jessica Coates
WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE .By Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Harper Perennial. 401 pages. $19.99
Welcome to Night Vale is probably the most highly anticipated piece of 2015 nerd fiction you’ve never heard of. It debuted at No. 4 on The New York Times bestseller list, just below J.K. Rowling’s Career of Evil, and, this fall, the authors’ 21-city book tour sold out Chapel Hill’s Varsity Theater. But, unlike most other pieces of popular fiction, this one is based on a quirky, twice-monthly podcast with a small but intensely loyal following. And its listeners may not know what they’re getting themselves into when they pick up this novel.
The podcast and the book, written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, both take place in the fictional desert town of Night Vale and center themselves on Night Vale community radio shows. Fink, creator of the “Night Vale” concept, says that they originally chose community radio because they had no money and wanted to distribute their ideas using a cheap and easy platform. Now, only three years later, both Fink and Cranor have been able to quit their day jobs and tour the world doing live Night Vale shows.
But, while the podcasts provide listeners with somewhat light and humorous takes on existential quandaries, the novel dunks their heads directly into some of their deepest, darkest fears. From dissecting the complicated relationship between a single mother and her son to exploring the subtle terror of losing one’s sense of order, the main characters of the Night Vale novel do much more than dip their toes into the waters of existential crises – they essentially drown in them.
Diane, the single mother, has a lot going on. Her son, Josh, can alter his shape into anything – a fruit fly or a fanged puppy, to name a couple. Josh’s father, Troy, has reappeared in Night Vale after years spent elsewhere. And, to make matters worse, one of Diane’s coworkers disappears from the office – and no one remembers his ever existing except her. As she digs deeper into the mystery of his disappearance, and into the mystery of Troy’s reappearance, she starts to feel distance growing between herself and Josh, who wonders if she’s gone insane.
On a similarly wayward path is Jackie, a perpetually 19-year-old woman who can’t remember the last time she had a birthday. Unable to make friends who are her own age, because they keep getting older and leaving her behind, she instead devotes all her time to running a pawnshop where everything costs $11. The routine of running the shop is all that gives her life purpose, because it gives her a chance to ignore whatever concerns may be lurking in the back of her mind. But that is all disrupted one day when a strange customer comes into the shop and pawns a piece of paper of which she can never get rid.
Both women, wrestling with different insecurities and questions, find themselves intertwined as the story moves along, finding that their ultimate goals may not be so different. But, through their struggles, readers proceed along a darker path than ever explored in the podcasts, which might lead fans to question whether they even want to come along for the ride.
Which is to say: Fans of the podcast should not miss this chance to explore the town of Night Vale in more detail, but they shouldn’t expect the two experiences to line up perfectly. For those who have yet to listen to the Night Vale podcast, take heed – you are about to enter a strange and twisted world.