Like most girls my age, I’m obsessed with the balance of being both beautiful and threatening. I look in the mirror and wonder if I am enough to unsettle those around me and scare away predators-- to protect myself. Yet, I can’t bring myself to wear hair in my face. I refuse to try and blend in with the background-- I’m too vain. That’s why I found myself reaching for that bright yellow book with purple pages and an inside cover showing endless layers of disembodied human teeth. I’ve always been attention seeking and filled with more hubris than should fit in a human body, so I liked when the bright colors caught the eyes of my peers and I could show them the inside cover-- an angler fish, of sorts. The summary promised a discussion of religion and science. It delivered on that, of course, but not without bringing me into a world that was just a little too weird to be satirical.
It Devours!, by Joseph Fink and Jeffery Cranor, centers around Nilanjana Sikdar, a local scientist, trying to uncover the mystery of the giant sinkholes swallowing up buildings in Night Vale, the strange desert town she recently moved to. She meets Darryl, a religious member of the Church of the Smiling God, who she knows is connected to it all. They work together, uncovering secrets of the church, of other scientist’s pasts, and ultimately have to work past their many, many differences to save their town-- and the world.
While that’s interesting,-- it’s not why I love the book. It, much like the town it takes place in, is full of holes. Plot holes. Anti-mountain cults, thousands of unnamed barista clones, agents from a vague, yet menacing government agency, shape-shifting teenagers, a single bodied eldritch horror as the city council, scientists studying the effects of being disappointed in potatoes, angels in plain sight, asking for ten dollars-- and none of them are the center of the plot. They aren’t even sub-plot, they’re just a backdrop for the rest of the story. Darryl and Nilanjana meet because she claims that time is weird, sick, and dying. There are thousands of story offers every chapter, and yet they remain problems. People in town just learn to deal with it.
It was everything I had ever dreamed of.
I always enjoy an old fashioned mystery where everything is explained, every detail makes sense, and the ending is predictable with an unpredictable twist. While that may work just fine for Sherlock Holmes, I don’t think apocalyptic dimension consuming beasts really follow the rules of traditional literature. And why should they?
Nilanjana is constantly making and reassessing hypotheses throughout the book. It’s how she understands the world: observing, guessing, and learning. She doesn’t figure it out early on or spend the whole book trying to prove she’s right-- she’s constantly adapting and changing. Fink and Cranor know the type of people who reach for yellow books with pictures of teeth-- they know that we’re still learning and figuring things out. Nilanjana spends half the book getting together with some guy only to fall out of love in the last chapter.
You might think that’s unsatisfying or cheap, but it’s not. She and Darryl were so different, they only got together because they made it through a traumatic event together-- something I have always wanted to see addressed in the aftermath of an action movie. The only thing I had disliked about the book was it’s romance-- it felt forced. There’s no way they could make it, I expected more from Fink and Cranor. I had worried that they might sacrifice the authenticity for the sake of metaphor, but it means so much more that they didn’t.
They didn’t cheap out on obvious metaphors. It wasn’t written in a way that if you know what it symbolizes, suddenly everything is clear. The world doesn’t always make sense, sometimes it’s problematic-- mysterious. No one is the center of every story, all the time, it would get exhausting. You have to accept that everyone around you is on their own quest and you’re on yours. It’s an unexpected message, but a welcome one in a world of books about chosen ones and superheroes.
I’ve always been a sucker for the ridiculous among the normal-- most people have. Superman works in an office, aliens work at convenience stores in Men in Black, and It Devours! has its fair share of this. But that’s not where it thrived. It Devours! gave generously to me something I had been lacking in stories for a very long time: the normal among the ridiculous. Like the glow cloud: “Night Vale had a glowing cloud, which caused anyone near it to chant fealty to its awesome size and power, and which continually rained dead animals down on the city. The Glow Cloud was president of the Night Vale School Board and had been doing an efficient job” (164). The glow cloud is only mentioned once, only ever brought up when it matters, but it could be the subject of it’s very own novel-- maybe it would be, had it been mentioned in any other book. It isn’t the antagonist, they don’t recruit it in the final battle-- it’s just there. People exist all the time, not just for the sake of plot. Everything about the city is ridiculous and far-fetched, but people continue their day to day lives, as best as they can. They find normalcy in everything-- it’s a weird kind of beauty.
I haven’t quite figured out a balance between beautiful and threatening-- or science and religion, for that matter. They’re far apart, but I think there’s a way they can work together. I’m still learning, still making hypotheses about the world, but I’ve come pretty far since I first picked up that bright yellow book with those weird purple pages. If Night Vale can reconcile the weird with the normal and still be okay, I’m confident that I’ll get there, too. It Devours! managed to be simultaneously the most realistic, yet completely outlandish book I have ever read. It was honest, the way that people talked to each other, the way they always tried to make it work. That contrast means everything to me. Complimentary colors are about as far apart on the color wheel as they can get, but putting them together is one of the oldest tricks in the art world. It’s striking, attention-grabbing, and beautiful. Blue and orange. Red and green. And, unsurprisingly, purple and yellow.