I remember being in the audience of the Keswick Theatre in 2015 listening to Mara Wilson perform her role as the Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home; how she was staring at me from behind the mirror while I brushed my teeth and looked back unknowingly. Like many of Welcome To Night Vale's performances, it was absurd. You know, in way that one would refer to a Haruki Murakami novel, wherein the protagonist chases a sheep-man through his dreams. The lights were low and Mara Wilson, whom I'd later share cookies with at A-Camp, had suspended my disbelief. The performance was titled The Investigators. I bought a poster.
My boyfriend and I returned to our house afterwards. I never thought about the possibility that there could be an old woman observing me somewhere out of my periphery. We had left the magic on stage, or so we believed. That which we believed to be real was back again. Although, perhaps she had been the reason my socks would disappear out of the dryer. One cannot be too certain of these things.
Welcome to Night Vale straddles the line between what is real and what is imaginary by describing the fictional town of Night Vale from the perspective of radio host, Cecil Palmer. During his radio program, Cecil informs the listener of local happenings (read: conspiracies) within the town of Night Vale whilst also stepping away regularly to address his own personal issues, which provides opportunities for uncanny advertisements, other characters, and of course the weather forecast to be broadcast in his absence. None of what is described during the show is real; it's fiction. The stories are all fabrications of writers Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. However, the radio show is presented for you to believe that it could be real. Night Vale is supposedly a town way off in the Southwestern United States, and if you're like me, you probably haven't gone that far out into the desert to check.
As people, we like to detour away from reality, but eventually we come back. We appreciate the absurd, provided it feels safe. It's an easy enough thing for Welcome to Night Vale, a fictional radio show, to suspend our belief in normalcy long enough for us to experience something magical, then return us back to our mundane existences. We buy into these stories, unwittingly. It's in our nature to experience magic. Between our routine and sleep we must find some sort of meaning to endure, to procreate, to thrive--the list continues. We seek out fantasy and express ourselves using our imagination. We compose fables and myth to explain our own creation. We use words like 'allegory' and 'metaphor', literally to describe something as representative or symbolic of something else, as abstraction, to relate something unreal to the real experiences of others. We create our own magic. So it is that our humanity is both magical and mundane simultaneously.
It was also in 2015 that Modest Mouse, an experimental indie rock band, released their album Strangers to Ourselves. It was the band's first studio album in eight years, marking the longest gap between studio albums in their career. I felt as I still do now that it pushed away from the pop influences of Good News for People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, which may have been the point. Their front man, Isaac Brock, had this to say to National Post about their reputation:
You start adapting differently because you spent your whole life reacting to the way people react to you and if that shifts ever so slightly [it disorients you]. For example, people start assuming you’re making a lot of money. Led Zeppelin is rich as shit. They were richer than me the first two records they put out. Richer than anyone in our band will ever be.
As a songwriter, Issac is known for his battles with self-doubt with lyrics like "I’ve changed my mind so much I can’t even trust it", to "If you could compact your conscience and sell it, save it for another time, you might have to use it." He reputedly recorded and re-recorded many of the tracks from the album in their garage studio until both the sound and wording was correct, not to find some mysterious far-off sound, but instead in search of something more mundane.
Leading up to the release of Strangers to Ourselves, Brock talks about nearly losing his mind during the recording of the album which was reported at one point to be a two-parter. It's been five years since the release of Strangers to Ourselves and we've seen no part two.
Brock's struggle with popular influence reflects how simple it is for people to lose themselves in the sort of magic we call fame. Being famous isn't something you experience for yourself until it's thrust upon you, and it can be inescapable. It's a sort of magic you can't stop living, the kind that becomes a new reality, the kind that you lose your 'self' in. I find it ironic that Issac Brock, a well-documented atheist both in lyric and personal belief, has become idolized by others. I can't imagine he'd want that.
So, when the lines between magic and reality blur, you better hope you have a solid enough anchor to reality lest you get swept away.
This latest affectation of our lives, this pandemic, has been a Struggle for many people. Many have lost someone they loved. It feels surreal to be trapped inside our homes avoiding an invisible plague to protect those we love, without an end in sight. If that's not magical thinking, then I don't understand what is. We can use science to rationalize it, we can read books to explain it, we can listen to the experts to describe it. It doesn't change the absurdity associated with it. What can we anchor ourselves to if the entire planet is in lock down? I have only one rational answer: belief, faith, hope, or magic.
Magic has never left; in fact, it's very clear that this whole pandemic is absurd. The past four years are testament to magical realism. For me, it's more that I miss my safe harbors--places to cast anchor--and I don't know when they'll be back. I don't know when I will see my family in person again.
“Farewell, Kafka Tamura,” Miss Saeki says. “Go back to where you belong, and live.”
Eventually, we'll move on and return to the way we used to live with lessons learned and a new-found strength. We'll escape this magic, find a new reality, and discover magic again. There'll be brand-new worlds to explore. We'll reunite with family. We'll grieve for the those we lost. We'll put this magic behind us. Even in Kafka on the Shore, the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world, the titular Kafka, manage to returns back to Tokyo and reunites with his sister. There will be a happy ending, if you want there to be. You need only believe in magic.
Dock Near The Mountains (Cover Photo) courtesy of Paul E. Harrer