Monday, 19 March 2018

And hail they did: welcome to night vale’s ‘all hail’ review

10 February 2018*

If you’ve never heard of Welcome to Night Vale, you could surmise a lot from the crowd outside Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre last night. It seemed the entirety of the fandom’s local contingent had descended on the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale in full devotee regalia—geeky, affable youths in official merchandise, gothic corsets and steampunk goggles, bafflingly obscure costume homages, and hair dyed in every hue. 

But the prevailing colour of the night, sported by almost every second attendee, was undoubtedly the signature purple of the long-running US podcast’s logo: a runic, crescent moon–pupilled eye hovering ominously above familiar water tower and powerline emblems of rural America, part-Sauron, part–Dr TJ Eckleburg.

Each episode of the bi-monthly internet series represents a broadcast by fictitious radio host Cecil Palmer, beloved commentator on the weird, nonsequitur, Lovecraftian happenings of Night Vale, an imagined desert community populated by mysterious forces and agencies competing to terrorise quiescent townsfolk. Fans of the show are drawn to its potent combination of creepy paranormal tropes, deeply ironic and self-aware humour, and Tumblr-style progressive politics promoting a message of universal acceptance for self and other alike.

In the currently touring live show ‘All Hail,’ the sudden inexplicable appearance above the radio station of ‘the Glow Cloud’—according to the Night Vale Wiki ‘an eternal deity predating reality and currently serving as the president of the Night Vale School Board’—instigates abject worshipful prostration and mindless recitations of fealty from the town’s populace, sending Cecil on a mission to determine its motives and appease the malevolent nebula.

The quest is punctuated by regular segments imported from the podcast such as an infomercial from ‘sentient patch of haze’ Deb, a collection of comically moribund horoscopes, a forecast of the delightfully bizarre events scheduled on the Community Calendar and, of course ‘the Weather’—a performance by the charming pint-sized musician Erin McKeown, who over-estimated the melodic and mnemonic aptitude of the average Melburnian theatregoer with admirable consistency and patience. The show also features appearances from new and recurring characters in the Night Vale universe—snobby local music store proprietor Michelle Nguyen, shapeshifting sixteen-year-old Josh Crayton, bibliophile teen militia captain Tamika Flynn, and time-travelling intern Jeffrey Cranor.

Erin McKeown as 'the Weather.'

Perennial motifs from the podcast find expression once again in ‘All Hail,’ among them a recurrent anxiety about the rapid consumption and disposal of culture and the pace of contemporary life. After entrapping the audience into laughing at how ‘2014’ vaping is, the charismatic show-opener Meg Bashwiner quips, ‘It’s just like a millennial podcast audience to throw shade at something that was four years ago.’ And in the show proper, Nguyen references in stereotypical upward inflection ‘super-old retro music like The Killers and Usher.’ The obnoxious hipster persona Nguyen’s character satirises is itself a little stale in 2018, though her appearance yields such highlights as the fourth wall–breaking real-time, part-improvised narration of sounds from the audience and a description of her so-called business plan as ‘a crude sketch of Noel Gallagher being consumed by a golem made of cocaine.’

Likewise, the show seeks with some urgency to initiate the audience into the experience of human connection so central to its ethics, reminding us continually of the communality of viewership. ‘The sound of 950 people together in a room sharing an experience’ is one of the sounds Nguyen identifies from the audience, a sentiment echoed more pointedly in Cecil’s later ironic jibe, ‘Who wants to go out in public and share physical space with other people?’ Like ‘The Investigators,’ the last Night Vale live show to reach antipodean shores in 2016, ‘All Hail’ exploits opportunities for audience participation to drive this message home, enforcing hand-holding and protracted group recitations, albeit with a little less success than its predecessor.

Loyal listeners will recognise in ‘All Hail’ the formula of several arc-ending episodes of the podcast, which often conclude with emotive diegetic exhortations from Cecil that have clear real-world political parallels. The show ends on an impassioned plea to convert our good intentions into positive action if evil is to be thwarted. ‘Books,’ Tamika Flynn says, are ‘potential human action,’ and ‘filled with empathy, which is much more heart-shattering than any bullet.’ And ‘good,’ we are told, ‘is an action, not a description.’

While timely, timeless and true (Bashwiner includes in her opening address the embarrassed Trump apology fast becoming a standard convention for every international American performance), this message is not so elegantly grounded in the preceding performance as it is in past podcast episodes or in ‘Investigators,’ and feels superimposed rather than earned—a coda by deus ex machina. Without spoiling the final act completely, plot events might have lent themselves much more naturally to a conclusive sermon on the importance of communication and making space for understanding one another than a tenuously (or, dare I say, non-existantly) linked monologue on activism.

But the minds behind Night Vale know their audience and, judging by the uproarious cheering, hyena-cackling, standing ovation and double encore this audience bestowed on the performers, it was not inclined to register the maladroit delivery of a message it so firmly agreed with after an hour and a half of such skillfully targeted entertainment. I’m not inclined to try to disabuse them, but I would advise caution on behalf of those considering taking along friends uninitiated in the Night Vale universe like I did, lest the audience’s Glow Cloud–like adoration fail to take root in them.

*Note: I would've put this up this sooner, but I was delayed by talks with the editor of a website. It appears here with their permission.

Thanks for reading


Monday, 12 March 2018

Where thoughtfulness lives: adelaide writers' week 2018 review

Monday 13 March 2018

It may be Australia’s longest-running literary festival, but Adelaide Writers’ Week shares little resemblance with the big-name east-coast counterparts that followed it a generation later. 

The event’s idiosyncrasies reflect much about the city that gave it birth: august, commodious Adelaide, temperate and traversable, capital of the festival state, with its surrounding circlet of parklands in which the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden could be an understated crown jewel. Far from the air-conditioned concert halls and crowded café venues of the Sydney and Melbourne festivals, Adelaide Writers’ Week passes in the open air and sunshine of this glorious garden. 

And it feels like a gathering in a forest clearing, an enchanted grove. You sit, encircled by a dwarfbrick wall and screens of greenery sun-washed and backlit, presided over by each panel as they hold court beneath the beneficent maternal gaze of Ola Cohn’s 1941 Waikerie limestone statue, a goddess of the glade. Overhead, a lacing of cables, fairy lights, tree branches and blue tarpaulin spans the space between six sentinel lampposts straight out of Narnia. There’s the constant imposition of planes passing above, and sun and shade sweep over you in shifts as the clouds roll on, offering the discussion cheerful or ominous punctuation. ‘That’s global capital,’ jokes the Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams when a sudden darkness falls at Laleh Khavidi’s mention of gun stock divestment. ‘It doesn’t like what you’re doing.’ Beneath you are humble green plastic chairs like your nan has on the patio and, should they grow too hard on your backside, you’re free to plant yourself on the nearby grassy slope where locals snooze under hats and children periodically frolic a little too loudly. Kick your shoes off, lay back, close your eyes, and let the conversation wash over you. ‘It’s a pretty friendly festival,’ poet Pamela Brown summarises in response to an audience question. ‘The air’s good.’

Mem Fox reads from I’m Australian Too.

It’s simply different. Fanatical volunteers stand smiling guard over the bins, racing to intercede before any recyclable item is denied its rightful reincarnation by mistaken consignment to general waste. The dignified demountable bathrooms offer expensive soap and proper mirrors. For some reason, there’s a joey in the writers’ green room and, occasionally, in the audience.

And, indeed, everything about the event is free and easy. No pressure to attend pre-booked and paid-for sessions. You may come and go as you please between the twin stages that sit companionably close in the riverside park. Follow your fancy through a program as well-balanced and legible as Adelaide’s city grid—from the intimately personal to the sweepingly geopolitical, local to international, grand historical narratives to confessional poetry. Unbound by the confines of the indoors and its attendant fire codes, audiences expand and contract like a breathing organism according to the popularity of the speakers. Events at the more intimate west stage like The Life to Come with the radiant Michelle de Kretser send the crowd fanning out into the wings of shade beyond the garden walls and curling up the slope, while drawcards at the east stage such as insightful international heavyweight Barbara Kingsolver and the delightfully peculiar festival-favourite Robert Dessaix break the banks entirely to engulf the little island of the stage in all directions.

In such a setting, the thirty-third iteration of the festival assembled almost a hundred writers, loosely united, as outgoing director Laura Kroetsch writes in the event programme, by the concept of ‘change.’ Unlike the parkland setting, this theme is a convention endemic to all literary festivals, to any gathering of those most sensitive vessels of social anxiety and conscience that are writers. Aside from helping stimulate the book sales that sustain our wordsmiths, this, it could be said, is what writers’ festivals are for. They are time that attendees collectively set aside to pay attention to the things in our world worth writing about: the troubles plaguing democracy chronicled in a genteel Monday-morning dialogue between British philosopher AC Grayling and local journalist and commentator George Megalogenis. The fury and shame about Australia’s ‘extreme cruelty to refugees’ that inspired beloved and formidable festival dedicatee Mem Fox’s latest book I’m Australian Too. The capitalism-driven environmental destruction foreseen in the fiction of Cory Doctorow, Maja Lunde and Jennifer Mills. The institutional racism and radicalisation contemplated by Laleh Khavidi and Kamila Shamsie. The introspection and commitment to the common good Judith Brett finds missing in contemporary Australian politics. The threat of climate change to Pacific nations such as the Marshall Islands that poet Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner spoke of. And, most pervasively this year, the sense that somehow it is all going wrong. That meaning, the media, and politics have lost their way. That, in Kingsolver’s words, ‘the rules don’t apply any more.’ As literary critic Sean Hooks once wrote, ‘it’s all going south tout de suite—awry and amuck and astray, combustible, doused in petrol, the fuse already lit.’ 

Of course, attendees at such events tend to broadly agree on these topics, nodding and applauding so vigorously and universally that it is hard at times to understand why no one has done anything about them yet, to remember that this sample isn’t representative. We risk veering into self-congratulation, but we also remind ourselves we are not alone, steel our resolve, and reflect upon solutions. And, occasionally, answers arise. Australian Book Review editor Peter Rose’s eloquent question elicited one such (even more eloquent) answer from Queensland poet Sarah Holland-Batt: ‘Where does poetry sit in a world consumed by material objects, materialism, pragmatism, careerism, professionalism, managerialism, all those –isms?’ asked Rose. ‘How does poetry survive in a world so devoted to the object?’

‘Poetry,’ came Holland-Batt’s answer ‘really is the last […] vestige, the last bastion of a space where every word is consequential, where language is reduced to its most core purpose, to its most exacting, its most particular. A poem is a perfect machine where every word has its use, has its meaning […] Poems are the one place where sane and exacting language lives at the moment, in this morass of fake news and loose use of language.’

In other words, one of the ways we can save the world is: more this. More reading, more thinking, more discussion, more devotees to the compassion and rigour of literature and poetry, where standards of quality are cherished, not abandoned, where ethical engagement with the world persists, where meaning something still means something, where thoughtfulness lives, where we can learn the tools of discernment and critical thinking that allow us to dispatch the dissembling messages of governments and corporations and demand better. 

One of the ways the writers’ week instantiates this impulse is particularly fitting for the state where (white) Australian women first won the right to vote, the birthplace of Australian suffrage. Without explicitly stating it, without excluding anyone, it is on so many levels a festival by and for women. Dedicated this year to a woman writer, set in a garden memorialising the contributions of women, on and around International Women’s Day, it is a worthy alternative to a corporate breakfast agitating for more gender-representative economic inequality. This year the lost diary of Australia’s most influential woman writer Miles Franklin was even found during the proceedings. Among such auspices, it was impossible not to notice the makeup of the crowd—most abundantly middle-aged women, Australia’s largest reading demographic. A woman runs the festival, the discussions are most deftly facilitated by female chairs, and women appear onstage over half the time, often speaking on topics relevant to the cause. 

Next year’s Writers’ Week passes from Laura Kroetsch to Sydney Writers’ Festival CEO Jo Dyer. We can hope that, as an Adelaide native, Dyer will know how to preserve and enhance what makes Writers’ Week so unique and so very important as a home for careful thinking in a world of bombast and bluster.