“A friendly desert community, where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Nightvale.”
First, a little background. Welcome to Nightvale: A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor is a book based on an incredibly successful podcast that started in 2012. Told in the style of a community radio broadcast for a small city, the Welcome to Nightvale podcast is weird. So weird. It’s a horror-comedy where conspiracy theories, life-threatening events and supernatural occurrences are completely normal. Time doesn’t work as it should, and science is a kind of ritualistic magic involving connecting things with wires to machines and writing down complex-looking equations.
This is a review of the novel adaptation, but it’s worth pointing out that I’m a big fan of the podcast. A huge fan. A GARGANTUAN FAN. So yea, I’m coming into this with a fair amount of bias.
Whereas the podcast uses the format of a radio broadcast, the novel is told from a third-person perspective, but one that’s playful in tone, and infused with warmth and familiarity. The book doesn’t necessarily require the reader to have listened to the podcast, but it is crammed full of references that will only make sense to long-time listeners. So if you haven’t, I’d approach with significant caution unless you’re happy having ideas go straight over your head like helicopters from a vague, yet menacing, government agency.
The writing style of the authors succeeds in capturing the essence of Nightvale. It is strange, dark and beautiful. The authors play with storytelling cliches and language in a way similar to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, giving the book a voice that is at times laugh-out-loud funny, and at others touching and poetic.
However, it’s got problems. The plot centers around two women, Jackie and Diane. Jackie runs a pawn shop, and finds herself displaced from her life and her routine when she’s visited by a mysterious man wearing a tan jacket, carrying a suitcase full of flies. Diane is treasurer to the Nightvale Parent-Teachers Association. Her shapeshifting teenage son, Josh, has a growing interest in his estranged father, who has recently begun to appear all over Nightvale. Eventually, the two women cross paths in their mission to discover what exactly is going on.
The plot is far from perfect. There are too many cameos and visits to locations familiar to listeners of the podcast. While it’s nice to see the town of Night Vale from an alternate perspective, these sections don’t really advance the plot in significant enough ways. As a result, the entire midsection of the book slows down to a crawl as we tick names and places off the list. If the book hadn’t leant so heavily on these familiar elements like a crutch, then it could have been a great piece of fiction in it’s own right, rather than a mere companion to the podcast.
It can also be difficult to sift through the piles of weird to determine what’s important and what’s not. Is the waitress who bleeds a lot and grows fruit from her limbs important to the plot? Is she some kind of metaphor? Or is she just a joke, part of the scenery? As a result, I decided that the best way to enjoy the book was just to go with the flow, as if I were listening to the podcast, not overthink it, and wait to see how things turn out. Things pick up again towards the end, with the authors leading the plot to a creepy and inventive conclusion, writing at their best once more.
At it’s heart, WTNV:TN is a book that asks, ‘what does it means to grow older,’ as we see Jackie contemplating entering adulthood, Josh torn between his own desire and loving respect for his mother, and Diane struggling to empathise with young characters whom she still sees as children. The book is disjointed, yet funny, weird, sweet and contemplative. To all Nightvale fans, I recommend this book. To all others, listen to the podcast first.