Thursday, December 17, 2015

Chicago Nerds- Welcome to Night Vale

For the last meeting of the Chicago Nerd book club, we discussed "Welcome to Night Vale" (2015) by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor.

The novel is set in the world of the podcast of the same name, which a fair number of us are completely enamored of. It's a twice-monthly show, a bit like "The X-Files Home Companion": a small community radio broadcast from a town where the strange and supernatural are commonplace. It's a very weird mix of the surreal, horrific, and mundane, that somehow adds up to astonishingly comedic. For some! Not everybody at group is into it.

We found the adaption of that show to a novel format fairly problematic--particularly given the importance of narrator Cecil Baldwin and the music of Disparition to the show's tone. Nonetheless, we had a fruitful discussion, with much attention paid to listening vs. reading. Spoilers below!

Oh yeah, spoilers. We were promised no spoilers in the novel--an important point for those still catching up to current on the show, which didn't turn out to be entirely true. There's some reveals about Cecil, Carlos, and other characters, though nothing too crazy.

On the whole, I think it's fair to say that our consensus was that it doesn't stand well on its own, and could have been much more successful if it had been a bit more ambitious in breaking away from the world of the show as already described. The first half of the novel particularly felt like a review of the world of Night Vale, rather than the beginning of a novel. And the density of the references to the podcast, while a delight to aficionados, was perhaps a bit much.

Two kids growing up
in the heartland?
However, past a certain point--somewhere around the library--we agreed that Jackie & Diane's story took on enough momentum of its own that it started to work.

We noted that a "stranger comes to town" or "straight man" archetype--where someone unfamiliar with the weird world can react to it, have it explained, etc., would have been a useful device here. But we don't get that, although to some extent Diane & Jackie play that role in their visit to King City. I lamented the fact that Carlos--who, early in the podcasts, does play that role a bit, constantly horrified/astounded at the weirdness of Night Vale--is here reduced to one more person so submerged in the weirdness that they lose the ability to give us any perspective on it. His "scientific method", while perhaps good for a chuckle, destroyed his believability as an outside character for me.

We were split on how we felt about the inclusion of the "Voice of Night Vale" sections, which is literally the podcast intruding into the novel. Some of us were okay with it, some of us were so annoyed with it we skipped it entirely, while for others--particularly those less familiar with the show--these were some of the best sequences, and the best clue to the tone of the overall book.

It was suggested that
Cecil might have been
channelling Janice for
his portrayal of Jackie.
Probably the roughest part of this adaptation is missing Cecil's tone. As someone pointed out, much of how Night Vale (the podcast) works is not the words, but the tone and inflection Cecil puts on them (for example, the cheerful description of the secret police interrogation chambers, and the throat-scratching horror with which street cleaning day is greeted), which is very difficult to express in just the written form. Cecil narrated the audiobook, and those who listened to that rather than read reported a pretty different experience. In particular, those of us who read had a hard time with Jackie's character versus her dialog, whereas those who listened got the impression that Cecil was exaggerating/mocking her speech to some extent, and so intuited that there was a more serious character underneath her actual lines.

I highly recommend Cortazar
if you're looking for Night Vale-ish
magical realism, especially
"Blow-up and Other Stories".

We liked Josh a lot, and in talking about his shape-shifting got onto a lot of thematic analysis of the novel. There's a lot to do with change here, versus being stuck in place/time/character. We talked about when the horror works (various), and how sometimes the surreality/horror crosses over into really effective magical realism kinda territory. But there's this thin, shifting line between "effective, scary magical realism" and a "goofy, that's-so-random" kind of effect.

Comparisons made to adapting SNL skits to movie-length projects. Sometimes you get "Wayne's World", sometimes you get "Stuart Saves His Family".

Lifelock's creepy logo
reminds me of the villains
in that old Atari game
Some fannish squeeing over parts of Night Vale that we do like, such as Steve Carlsberg, the "sponsors" of the radio (particularly Lifelock), Helen Hunt's fictional biography, and more.

A good discussion, but I think our overall conclusion was "recommended if you're really into Night Vale, which is a good thing to be, but not otherwise".

Discussing radio, podcast, and narration led us into listing some noteworthy audiobooks, including:
  • Martin's "Game of Thrones" narrated by Roy Dotrice
  • Butcher's "Dresden Files" narrated by James Marsters (of Buffy fame)
  • The full-cast audio production of "Hyperion", which I've heard many others laud, and which we mentioned in the Chicago Nerds discussion of the novel.
  • Campbell Scott's reading of Atwood's "MaddAddam"
  • Stephen Fry's definitive narration of Rowling's "Harry Potter" & Adams' "Hithchhikers' Guide"
  • We also discussed how Adams also narrated his own version, and thus a brief aside on how authors reading their own work gives it a kind of depth that's worth checking out--Mary Robinette Kowal, for instance.
  • Contrarily, it was mentioned that, if you can find them, Harlan Ellison's self-narrated audiobooks are hilariously, screamingly over-the-top bad.
Good stuff. Our first pick for 2016 is Naomi Novik's "Uprooted"! You can also see all suggested picks via Paul's Goodreads list.

And seriously, listen to "Welcome to Night Vale". If it doesn't click for you in the first episode or two, don't worry about it; but it's definitely hitting an extremely specific sense of humor that will delight you if you share it.

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