Episode 34: Welcome to Night Vale - Unless You’re Time… Time Is Not Welcome


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“She had recently turned nineteen. She had been recently nineteen for as long as she could remember. The pawnshop had been hers for a long time, centuries maybe. Clocks and calendars don't work in Night Vale. Time itself doesn't work.”

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            That’s a special case, you could say. For the rest of us, time will march on, and if it can pound you into the ground in its wake, then it will happily do it. Well, not happily. That requires emotion. Time has no emotion. Time has nothing but movement despite our attempts to personify it and make it easier for us to understand.

             Maybe that’s where Father Time came from. I could probably look up the actual origins of that tale rather easily. The wonders of the internet age and all that, or in living in a place where libraries aren’t battle groups filled with murderous creatures who just so happen to be called librarians. I have options, yes, but sometimes I just like the poetry of my assumptions. And, maybe, hopefully, there’s something there to be gained.

            After all, I can see the appeal of Father Time, the appeal that might have birthed him into existence. In this depiction, time is portrayed as an elderly man, presumably a paternal figure if you take his name at face value. Then again, he might have conceptualized as a counterpart to Mother Nature, but on the other hand, in olden days, fathers were seen as figures of loving but stern guidance. The traditional head of the household was supposed to be a benevolent ruler of a small kingdom. He was to listen to the concerns of his small subjects but make the right and just decision every time, or in other words, you can try to beg him or persuade him to let you have your way, but in the end, he may refuse you in the name of his love and what was right.

            And to be fair, time’s treats all people equally. It stops for no one. It favors no one. What we do beneath its gaze, well, that’s a very different matter.

            Simple illustration. Simple images based on simple beliefs and observations. Sure, they don’t hold up nor have they aged well, but it’s comforting in the moment. It’s a nice security blanket when things get far too intense and when you’re struggling to breathe. In a situation like that, nothing has to last forever; it just needs to get you through the moment.

            In reality, time moves on regardless. It’s a force nothing more. We don’t always like that. Or, we are afraid of that. Because what if we can’t keep up? Personally, I’ve never been good at running.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode thirty-five.

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            Today, I want to talk about Welcome to Night Vale. The novel not the podcast, but still, that might not make a huge difference to you. It may still feel repetitive. After all, for one, the novel and the podcast have a similar premise when you boil them down to their basic components. The novel is still a glimpse into the life of the small desert community created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Second, it may feel like I’m repeating myself or you’re worried that I will. Admittedly, I talk about Night Vale Presents productions a lot. Within the Wires is a relatively frequent subject of this show. Alice Isn’t Dead has made a couple of appearances with one more in the works, and I’ve done an episode on the Welcome to Night Vale podcast already. And each time, I have said that I love Welcome to Night Vale, to the point that I will give all Night Vale Presents shows a try. Trust has been built, and so far, I’ve had no reason to question the stability of that structure.

            Welcome to Night Vale is its foundation, and the novel just adds a bit of security to it. Of course, it likely helped that the story itself lined up with my life right then. I was in a time of change, one marked by uncertainty, fear, and a desperate desire to find someone or something I could anchor myself to. I was searching for a kindred spirit in a place where showing any type of vulnerability was not an option. It wasn’t outwardly condemned, but we all assumed it might as well have been. After all, graduate school can be a bit cutthroat. More than a bit if I am to be completely honest.

            And then came this novel. It was released during my first semester of graduate school, and you can bet I picked it up the day it was released. At the university bookstore, ironically enough. It was something I could hold onto or clutch in the absence of another person who could admit to feeling the way I did, and I did hold onto it. Desperately.

             If you’re wondering, it does pull from the show’s cannon, yes, but rather than being a podcast episode or playing to heavy handedly into the momentum of the show, the novel is a standalone story. There’s a lot of inside jokes, but you’ll live. It’s a tale of appearances and disappearances both of actual things and people but also of the self-assurance and confidence of its two main characters. Their tales are intertwined in more than just themes. But at the same time, I had a different takeaway from each, so this is going to be a two-parter episode. The first one ever for this podcast. Well, the first formal, deliberate, and planned two-part episode. One for each character.

            I’m going to starting with the character referenced in the quote I started the episode with. (Pause) I’m trying new things.

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            Nineteen-year-old Night Vale resdient Jackie Fierro would have a great life by most standards. I mean, most nineteen-year-olds are struggling to find a halfway decent part time job if they’re in school, and if they aren’t in school, well the whole job thing might even a lot harder. But multilevel marketing companies are apparently always hiring. (Pause). That was a joke. I definitely don’t think that joining an MLM is a good idea by any means, but I’ve spent so much of my day refusing related proposals that I can’t not make bad jokes about it for the sake of my sanity.

            But unlike the people I went to high school with,  Jackie doesn’t need to sell oils, cheap makeup, or supposed (quote) “health supplements.” She runs Night Vale’s pawn shop. Actually, she owns the shop. So she’s gotten a lot down for being nineteen. I mean, it probably helps that she’s been nineteen for a while. Quite a while. Who knows how long? If you had years, maybe even decades of being nineteen, you’d probably get a lot done too, so don’t beat yourself up about your supposed lack of accomplishments.

            If you aren’t familiar with Welcome to Night Vale, you can actually jump into the show at almost any time. Yes, there are a few defining things you need to know, but you can figure them out pretty quickly or a Night Vale fan will happily explain to you as need be.

            One of these things, in my opinion, is that time doesn’t work. And it’s actually hard to explain why that’s so important because, after all, we don’t think about time when it comes to other people’s lives or the lives of fictional characters. If we do, it’s because there is a clear problem with the timeline of a story—be it a potential lie or a well-meant narrative. And that can make certain stories more tolerable. Like, I wouldn’t recommend calculating how much time passes in the Fifty Shades trilogy. Like that story or not, laying out the timeline just raises concerns.

            However, the lack of time in the town of Night Vale gives its creators free reign to try some unconventional things, to give characters otherwise impossible dimensions or traits, and to create new conflicts. In this case, Jackie is nineteen, she has been nineteen for far longer than most of us were nineteen, and she doesn’t quite know when she won’t be nineteen.

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            Nineteen takes on a different meaning. In the absence of time, “nineteen” doesn’t refer to the amount of time you’ve been on earth. It can’t. There’s that word “time” again, which means nothing in Night Vale. Rather, I think the concept of years have become phases of your life. Phases that, in Night Vale, you pass through independent of the outside world. You gain a year in age when you’re ready. Not before.

            Jackie hasn’t been inclined to become twenty. It may be hard to explain the difference between nineteen or twenty, or I suspect that it could be. The lines must look a lot different for each person. I can see a difference in my life. And maybe Jackie can visualize a line she can’t step over. Not yet, anyway. That could be concerning to some people, but it doesn’t seem to bother her so much. Then she received a mysterious piece of paper that reads “King City” given to her by a mysterious man in a tan jacket whom she can’t remember that well. And well, she literally can’t get away from this piece of paper. What is she going to do?

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            So, last week’s episode was about one of the pieces that made up this giant shift in my life. I’ve mentioned another in the past. But that’s not so important. You know that during my college years, my entire understanding of the world and myself shifted. My world changed. Life changed. There’s a hard line between before and after. There was an awakening of sorts. You can say it any number of ways.

            That’s a common story. Girl isn’t happy. Girl goes some place. Girl has one epiphany or many depending on the actual contents of the story. Girl becomes a better person afterwards. I’m not pretending to be original or ground breaking on that front, but on the other hand, I’ve never heard the story of what comes after: when you’re still dazed and somewhat confused by what just happened, but with time moving on, you need to quickly put things back together.

            I can understand why that’s the case, so I’m not being overly critical on that front. I think it’s hard for a writer to come up with the rest of the story. There’s no natural direction to it and a sea of potential pathways. It may be easier to not try at all then risk burning down everything that came before. Or maybe what comes next is genuinely uninteresting.

I’m probably in the latter camp. What came afterwards, for me, was graduate school, a master’s program specifically. People can make jokes all the time about graduate school being for people who are too scared to enter the workforce or people who don’t know how to find a job. And, well, that’s all half-right in my case.

            I had other reasons for wanting to go to this specific program, but most of them aren’t relevant here. Here’s the one that is: I didn’t know what came next in my life. For so long, that question wasn’t mine to answer; its answer was dictated by the various adults in my life, but now that it had been wrestled back into my own hands, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know how to do something so simple as to answer that basic question. What did I want to do with my life?

            I thought about being a professor once, though I’m not quite sure if it was something I genuinely wanted to do or if it was just the most obvious way of paying everything forward. That was on the forefront of my mind after all. I could never pay anyone back for the gifts they had given me in college, but I felt compelled to acknowledge the magnitude of that generosity. While that may seem noble, that’s not a great way to pick a career, especially one as an academic. That’s the sort of career that’s great for a certain type of person. Everyone else should run while they have a chance.

            But I didn’t know what else to do. This was a somewhat appealing path before me that I could walk down. It had already been paved, and people were willing to help me. Yes, I finally had the pieces in my hand to build some sort of grand model of a perfect life for me, but I didn’t know how to do that. And even if it I did, it was just a model. A dream. We all have dreams, and they aren’t a bad thing when there are crafted by the dreamer and personalized appropriately. The problem I was having was that I was changing as a person. Or not changing, the pieces were settling, in slightly different ways. Things were coming to rest, and now, this dream—if that’s what it was—weren’t lining up properly with the person I was becoming.

            The question would be forced when I became a figurative twenty-three, so for now, I was taking the time to do little more than just going through the motions.

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            Here’s the issue I ran into. In academia, you have to specialize. Or you should, but I think we all can see that specialization is not the best thing for me or it’s not something I’d be particularly good at. And yes, as many an academic as told me, there are ways around that, but I’d need time to do that extra planning, which wasn’t on the table right then. After all, if I stopped to consider how much I wanted to commit myself to this specific discipline or what an alternative would have been, then that gives a bunch of other questions a chance in the spotlight. None of which I was ready to answer.

            But it wasn’t something I could easily get away from, was it? I was knee-deep in the subject, with a rising discomfort building in my mind. It was stuck to me or kept returning to me whenever I was trying to shake it off.

            But I couldn’t take that step yet. I was still twenty-two. I had been for a while. Not as long as I could remember, but I couldn’t remember what it was like to be twenty-one. And had no idea what being twenty-three would bring. In fact, I was avoiding that step. If it were up to me, I would have stayed twenty two for as long as I could.

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            It was just a perception, of course. I didn’t live in Night Vale. I lived in a place where time was very much real, and my birthday would come one way or another. But it’s almost like I was trapped in the body of a college senior who thought being an academic was their destiny. I couldn’t stay in that state for long. Either I’d have to leave the body I was possessing or I’d have to change it, but neither of those things seem likely.  

             So I just tried to deny the simple truth: that people change, even in Night Vale. Things happen to change them. It may be hard to conceptualize life happening outside of time as we know it, but assume, that things keep happening anyway. At least, that’s how it works in Night Vale. Things happen. Events happen. Time…. Not so much. You don’t need to be so concerned with the exact mechanics of how. Carlos the scientist with perfect hair will eventually figure it out. That’s how science works. (Pause) I mean, it’s going to take him a while, so I hope you aren’t holding your breath, but eventually he’ll get it.

            For now, think of events as distinct from time or life as distinct of time. Life is a journey, and time is the typical track, but in Night Vale, that track just so happens to be very different. Not linear, not a shape we can recognize immediately. So without time, there are still new situations, new places, and new information. All of these things ask you more questions about yourself or compel you to ask questions about your situation. Some of which you don’t want to answer. But they compel you to investigate, to think, to reexamine. Ironically enough, those were things I knew I wanted to do, but I wasn’t so good at putting them into practice just yet.

            On the other hand, this pre-made path was easy to take. It just meant walking forward. There was no calculating or planning, just walking. Maybe I wanted other things or things that wouldn’t come easily on this road. I can admit that as a flaw in this strategy. On the other hand, I had a desire for ease and simplicity, which is still a desire, as much as a desire anything else would be. And it was a lot easier to satisfy.

             But then there’s that pesky law of marginal utility: the more you have of something, the less you enjoy each piece. It’s normally used to discuss products and how many someone could but before everything falls apart. But, in theory, you could measure other goods, less tangible goods, in much the same way.

            I say this because, yes, in the context of the story as a product made by two content creators, Jackie was going to grow and change throughout the story. That’s logic in a storytelling context. The question is whether or not she is going to change for the better or for the worse. Then again—because it’s Night Vale—she may not change at all. Night Vale as a creative property manages to exist and thrive outside of the standard conventions, and they could always keep doing that in the name of artistic integrity. So who is to say it couldn’t have happened in the novel?

            However, disregarding all of that, I think Jackie, as a character or person, chose to go on this journey. Deep down, she chose relatively freely and not because of pressure exerted on her d by events or by a conspiracy. Because weirder and more inconvenient things happen in Night Vale every day and everybody adapts. It’s easy for something annoying to become the new normal. However, this mystery spurred her to act. This was the figurative straw that broke the camel’s back, and now, I’m trying to explain why.

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            Jackie might be nineteen, but not everyone is nineteen. Not everyone Jackie grew up with is nineteen. They grew. She didn’t. As a result, there were things in their lives that were out of the reach of this nineteen year old. There were things her former friends could do and have that she couldn’t experience. Some of them are challenges, yes, but some are joys too. And on the other hand, being nineteen was great in its own way, but she had likely done everything a nineteen year old could do multiple times over. She’d likely experienced everything a nineteen year old could experience again and again and again. Whatever joys came with being nineteen had been hers, and had been for a while. Now, she probably wasn’t getting the same payoff, particularly in the face of so many what-ifs.

            Or that’s what my experience was, and I may be forcing that onto her.

             I’ve heard it said that a book is different for each person who reads it because each reader brings in their own story and emotions to it. We integrate the book into our own life story and make it something different. Which is one of the underlying premise of this podcast, but that’s neither here nor there.

            Admittedly, and this may sound strange, I loved the act of dreaming about being a professor, but that wasn’t not going to last forever. For one, the question will eventually be forced: will I actually do it? You can call someone a professional student until you finally kill the joke, but eventually, they will have to jump into the career they’ve supposedly been working themselves up to. And then, what are they going to do? Panic? (Pause) Panic might actually be the answer for a lot of people. It shouldn’t be. But, you know it is…

            I never got that far. You see, the more I handled that dream, the more it seemed to fall apart. Slowly at first but then—as John Green might say—all at once, if falling asleep is anything like waking up.

            It probably helped of course that in the smaller class size of graduate school I could see my professors’ faces more clearly. I could see how tired they were. Which is normal in the modern age, you might say. But once I was tuned in to their plight, I could suddenly hear the whispers of discontent, of all the parts of the job no teacher of mine had been forthcoming about least they push their students away. It had been something I noticed in another professor, the one who showed me Hannah Arendt. I thought it was just something my class had provoked in him, but now I wasn’t so sure.

            But do I remember the straw that broke my back? No, some things and some people just aren’t memorable.

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             In my last episode on the subject, I pointed out that Night Vale was utopian in one distinct way: that is, in it, people could just be as they were. There was no need for fronts and no needless hatred. And in some ways, this story has that too, but it has so much more.

             It has the trappings of life, the trip ups that happen along the way, and the way strangers’ lives can get entangled. But that’s leading into the next episode. I’ll see you then.

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