Honest to God, I don’t think I have ever read a book that is weirder than this one. And I have read Kurt Vonnegut. As well as a book called The Thirteen and A Half Lives of Captain Bluebear which had a character called Qwerty Uiop. No joke.
Welcome to Night Vale is a novelisation of the podcast of the same name. As a matter of fact, I have been listening to the podcast as I read the book and a lot of the same elements appear in both. It’s quite clever. The podcast describes life in the quirky desert town of Night Vale while the book explores what happens when life in a weird town becomes even weirder and how that affects the lives of two of its residents.
If you have listened to the podcast, which you can download in its entirety from iTunes for free, then you don’t need to read this review. If you like the podcast, you will love this book. That’s all you need to know. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, keep reading.
This book is the epitome of surreal. Every single little thing in this book is just a little left of centre. That is, if these things aren’t so far left of centre that they’re right of centre. But what I loved about how this book is written, was that nothing is explained. You are just dropped into a world where Jackie Fiero has been nineteen for centuries, Diane Crayton has a shape-shifting son, and you are served coffee at the Moonlite All-Nite Diner by a woman with branches growing out of her. There is no info-dumping. What the authors do is to just drop the reader in the centre of this mess and inundate them with weirdness until it all becomes normal. This, dear reader, is how you show that you trust your audience to figure out your vision. And in a book as weird as this one, the fact that there are no explanations should alienate us. But, in fact, the setting and the plot does that already. I actually think the lack of explanation is a little bit meta: Night Vale is beyond explanation and so the reader is given none.
The plot is secondary to the story. One day, Jackie Fiero meets a man in her pawn shop who gives her a note that says “KING CITY” and she can’t let go of it. No matter what she does to the note. As the story progresses, more and more people receive this note. Including Diane, but she can put hers down. And so Jackie and Diane (OH MY GOD I LITERALLY JUST REALISED. JACKIE AND DIANE. LIKE JACK AND DIANE. “TWO AMERICAN KIDS GROWIN’ UP IN THE HEARTLAND”. BRILLIANT.) go on a quest to find out why the citizens of Night Vale are being told about a place that, by all accounts, is impossible to get to.
This plot sounds convoluted, but it really isn’t. These details just kind of seep into the everyday life of the Night Vale citizens. In fact, Welcome to Night Vale is essentially an in-depth look at the town. And yet, there is still story to be found in the lack of plot.
Does this make sense? Probably not. But that is inescapable. This book is beyond explanation.
The language itself is surreal. Every other sentence just strikes a wrong note. For example:
Jackie sat down on the institutionally patterned carpet, her head in her hands and allowed herself a few seconds of self-pity.
That one word, “institutionally’, reminds the reader that this world is so very, very different from our world. And this happens all the time. Plus, and I feel as though this PSA is needed, every once in a while there is a scene so unsettling and gory that you feel your skin crawl. In amongst the weirdness is a darker, madder weirdness. Seems impossible, but it’s true. Just look at this:
Behind him, one of the empty jars exploded with a pop. A few shards of glass went into the back of his hand. It began immediately to drip blood. His face did not change at all.
“Who did you say you were?” he said. Another jar exploded. This time some of the glass went into his face. Blood went down his cheeks like tears, dripping with loud taps onto the counter.
Finally, in between some of the chapters are excerpts of “the Voice of Night Vale”, which is the Night Vale radio program. The radio program that we regular people call Welcome to Night Vale. It’s a lovely touch, tying together the podcast and the book. Fans of the podcast can feel a little smug when they see these excerpts for the first time, knowing of the podcast’s existence before the book told them. But fans of the book can then go on a journey of discovery and listen to Cecil’s sonorous voice once they have read the authors’ instructions on “How to listen to the Welcome to Night Vale podcast”. A win-win situation.
Because this book is so weird, I’m not going to give it a star rating. Instead, I’m going to give it 5 of these guys:
If you are open to reading what is possibly the weirdest book available in the present moment, give Welcome to Night Vale a go. If you prefer your stories a little more … vanilla, maybe give this one a skip.