aberration: Katara from A:TLA leaned forward, her braid and arm behind her as she directs a whip of water. (there is a war coming)
veronica ([personal profile] aberration) wrote2016-01-17 12:09 pm

you can go way higher than that

So the second book I've finished this year is the Welcome to Night Vale novel. I know WTNV has sort of cycled in and out of fannish interest at this point, but with ample time to listen to podcasts while I do chores, I've managed to catch up on it. Though my mom was actually the one to buy this.

I'd wondered how well something like Night Vale, which really can't be constrained by things like consistency or logistics, would work as a novel, rather than the snippet views provided by the podcast. I do think it managed to pull off what it does in the show in this longer form – which is to continue to side-step the need to structure its weirdness by making its unreality a lens on reality. A lot of the Night Vale's attraction in the first place is less about glow clouds and hooded figures, I think, and more about its straightforward acknowledgment of many bizarre truths: how death is both always distant from and very close to us; that time and space aren't real things as we understand them, and that even the way we personally perceive them can vary so much; that the most dangerous things in the world are largely intangible; that our lives may be parts of dystopias, but you often don't call your home a dystopia. It is a little too long, and I found the resolution kind of talky and easy, but overall I felt that it did what it needed to.

Unlike the podcast, the major characters in the novel are not Cecil and Carlos, but Night Vale residents whom I'm pretty sure have been mentioned in passing but have never been major players in any previous stories before now:

Diane Crayton – A single mother whose somewhat moody teenage son, Josh, can shapeshift into anything. Her problems are the usual kind a single mother with a teen son can have – Josh is curious about his absent father. He wants more independence but has to learn the responsibilities that come with it (e.g. "You can't be a wolf spider when driving the car, Josh."). Both want, to a degree, separate lives, but both are also so obviously interconnected that each trying to have those lives can cause problems for the other. In addition to being Treasurer of the PTA (which I'm pretty sure is where she's be mentioned before), Diane works in an office she doesn't really understand, with coworkers she doesn't really understand, albeit because her boss has some issue with a tarantula and one of her coworkers starts the story by mysteriously disappearing from existence. Following up on this mystery eventually leads her to merge storylines with –

Jackie Fierro – The nineteen-year-old who runs the local pawn shop, and who has been nineteen years old and run the local pawn shop for as long as almost anyone can remember. Sometimes people ask her if she's ever thought about just turning twenty, which doesn't tend to go over well. The thing is, because Jackie's been nineteen, and been running the pawn shop, for as long as she can remember, she can't really remember anything else. She objectively knows she had a mother, and a childhood, but can recall little about them. Her life is in perpetual stasis until a man in a tan jacket that she also can't really remember shows up at her pawn shop and gives her a clue that she can't let go of.

Over the course of the book, most of the ongoing Night Vale running jokes and locations and characters make an appearance at least once. Other than that, I'm not sure I'd say that having listened to the podcast is very necessary for the reading the book. Nothing about the plot is dependent on it; sometimes there are little inside jokes, I guess, but I don't(?) think they overwhelmed the story. Mostly I'd imagine that someone coming at this book from a "I heard it's some kind of weird sci-fi Lovecraftian thing" perspective might not go for, again, Night Vale's general lack of concern for things like logistics or just… making sense at all. It's certainly not ordered sci-fi/fantasy, and it does do a lot of things that come off as a little… I don't know, the word I'm drawing is quirky but it's not really what I want. But it's the kind of thing you'd be used to from the podcast. The anchors on the local TV news will at times start talking directly to Diane through the television; Jackie "buries the doors" to the pawn shop every night to keep them from getting stolen; the waitress at the Moonlight All-Night is a tree and the ticket seller at the cinema is a hazy patch of sentience. How does any of this work??? Well, it doesn't matter, but I'd imagine some people who didn't know that coming in may not go for that.

My main objections were, again, that it went on a little long, and that its ending felt too easy. (While I imagine they were a big draw for other readers, I actually rarely felt the chapter-ending cuts to a Welcome to Night Vale broadcast really added that much. They were funny at first, but by the end I would usually just be eager to get back to the story.) I also felt that at points, with its main characters especially, it went some kind of clichéd routes to get where it wanted. I loved Jackie and Diane's eventual team up, but I felt like the road to get there was designed more by what the writers wanted them to go through first rather than what made sense from those characters.

That being said, I really enjoyed the characters and their stories. I loved the way the town's quirks could relate to less fantastical facets of everyday life. After the conversation in which Jackie's mother explained what their different perceptions of time meant for her, I actually had to set the kindle aside because I'd started crying. At its best, Night Vale uses its cutesiness and quirkiness and weirdness to say something piercing about our relatable, accessible reality. While this book has a lot of misses when it comes to that, there were also, at least for me, a lot of bullseyes. I also appreciate that I felt the authors were putting a lot of effort and care into these characters, albeit in vague, Night Vale fashion. (And yes, that the novel is ultimately about the partnership of two women of color.) And as talky/easy as I may have found climax, the very end goes out on a sweet, slightly realist (or surrealist) but still optimistic note.