Book Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Remember that misuse of language can lead to miscommunication, and that miscommunication leads to everything that has ever happened in the whole of the world.” p. 392

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I’m not a big fan of surrealist fiction. Much of it seems to be trying too hard to be dreamlike or disturbing, and ends up strained and unconvincing. But Welcome to Night Vale, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, is about as good a piece of literary surrealism, or near-surrealism, as I have read in some time. Whether it counts as surrealism is debatable, and I’m not going to debate it here. You could just as easily call it comedy/fantasy/horror.

I’ve been a fan of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast for some time, and the book plays to all the podcast’s strengths. Both have a dry, off-kilter humor that makes you wince and laugh at once: “Monday will be free-sample day at the Sheraton Funeral Home. (p. 165)” will serve as an example. This deadpan approach does not come with an implicit wink, as in Steven Wright’s jokes or the novels of Thorne Smith, but are instead jokes told and lived by characters who do not know they are jokes. We laugh at the creepy/funny intersection.

For years the Night Vale podcast has spoken in that distinctive style, voiced by Night Vale Community Radio announcer, Cecil Palmer (played by Cecil Baldwin). Portions of Cecil’s broadcasts are included throughout the book; the funeral home quote above is one. But the book as a whole is written in that same style – a bit odd considering the omniscient authorial voice is not Cecil Palmer.

But we don’t want innovation right away; like a favorite comedian, we want the jokes in the familiar vein, the beloved characters in their classic roles. It’s hard for comedy to stay fresh and grow, especially within a set form. That’s why TV sitcoms grow tired quickly. The book stays close to formula, though it grows stranger and darker around chapter 42. No spoilers, though I think some of the imagery grew from Bunuel and Dali, a good pedigree if you are aiming for surrealism. Even the more plebeian elements – the relationship between a mother and teenage son figures prominently, with Night Vale-ish complications – do not stray far from fantasy. Really, fantasy is what I should be calling it. Surrealism is a branch of fantasy, a refined and sometimes precious one.

The book is designed in keeping with the show’s minimal yet eye-catching esthetic, and only the paper quality detracts from the presentation. I’ve criticized Harper elsewhere for not putting a lot of effort into their books, and rough, almost pulp-quality paper is just one more minus. Make your books to last, or don’t make them at all.

The Welcome to Night Vale podcast appears twice a month; a wise choice not to appear more often. Already it has grown to encompass more characters and facets of the town, and brought people only mentioned to the microphone. Such an expansion should include their next book – and I hope they write more.

For more information, check out the Welcome to Night Vale website.

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