Book recommendations can be difficult even when the story that is being explained is relatively simple or familiar. However, some stories are beyond what can be easily described in a blurb while trying to recommend the book to a friend because they are simply too strange to be explained. Novels, Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and The Tiny Wife by Andrew Kaufman both fall into this category but they handle their own strangeness in very different ways. The former leans into its own strangeness while the latter creates an environment that feels oddly close to normalcy – demonstrating the ways that genre is constructed.
As magic is not a reality of the world that readers live in speculative fiction in any of its many varieties must occur in a world that is not our own. However, there is a large difference in the experience that results from reading about from an entirely created world like Middle Earth rather than one that exists in parallel to that of the reader like in Harry Potter. Welcome to Night Vale and The Tiny Wife are both set in magical realities that run parallel to the reader’s real world. The young people of Night Vale occasionally try to escape into the wider world, and Carlos the scientist comes from a place that is implied to operate exactly in the way that the real world does. In The Tiny Wife the characters don’t go to some different place but rather magic intrudes on them in the real world after a robbery at a bank that causes the book’s namesake woman to start shrinking while other experience all sorts of magical afflictions. These are both stories that contain a great deal of strangeness, in fact the strangeness of Night Vale is actually far more consistent and explainable by the end of the novel than the magic of The Tiny Wife, but The Tiny Wife is set much closer to the world of the reader in a way that is quite typical of magic realism.
In both novels there is a character who is new to this strange world, someone who can appreciate the bizarreness of what is going on. In Welcome to Night Vale that character exists at the periphery of the story and is viewed through the lens of the characters for which all of this is normal. Carlos the scientist pops up periodically to remind the reader that the real world is out there, and to assure them that someone else thinks this is really weird too. Carlos is curious but also frustrated by the lack of scientific reality within Night Vale and his appearances break any sense of status quo that the reader may have been developing. He is an intruder in the same way that the reader is an intruder to the strange happenings of Night Vale.
Kaufman’s The Tiny Wife also employs an outside character in the form of the husband who is also the narrator of the story. However, the husband’s place as both spectator to the strangeness and narrator for the reader is done in such a way to make his shrinking wife seem as normal as possible. Both the narrator and his wife acknowledge that the shrinking is quite out of the ordinary and attempt to work with the other magically affected characters in the story to find a solution but they at no point exhibit the extreme confusion, anger or curious mania that Carlos demonstrates as he confronts Night Vale. The husband may be an observer to the strangeness that has enveloped his wife in the same way that Carlos spectates the happenings of Night Vale but Kaufman’s narrator is calm and adaptable in a way that normalizes the magic of the novel for the reader. That normalcy is central to the creation of magic realism and Kaufman is very effective in his usage of the husband as an interloper to the magical in order to reinforce the reader’s view of the fantasy elements in contrast to the way Carlos plays up the reader’s perception of the bizarre event in Night Vale.
The challenge of wrapping up a novel that contains magic or strangeness of any kind seems to lie in degree to which the oddities need to be explained away to the reader. Fink and Cranor leave the strangeness very much intact: yes, the mystery of Troy has been solved but there are no implications that Night Vale will suddenly become some normal town where everything is exactly as one would expect if you drove in from our world. This is fairly typical of a lot of genre writing because part of the joy of reading these types of stories is escaping out of what is normal, and it is comforting to know that the more exciting world continues even as the story ends. The Tiny Wife on the other hand is magic realism and at the end of the novel Kaufman shows the way back to the true normal of the real world. The tiny wife begins to grow and although not everything is fixed there is a sense that the strange events of the novel are just a blip in the road which are being corrected. Both conclusions are satisfying endings to the stories that are portrayed in the two novels but there is a distinct difference to how the authors choose to leave their created worlds for the reader.
Trying to explain either of these novels to someone else is going to inevitably make them sound incredibly strange – probably in very similar ways – but the actual tone of these stories is vastly different. Welcome to Night Vale leans into its on campy sci-fi/horror feel while The Tiny Wife manages to slip subtly into normalcy. This is the dividing line between magic realism and other forms of genre writing, they are constructed in different ways which shape the reading experience of the audience. Neither is necessarily better than the other, but they require divergent strategies for handling similar elements which create parallels that are strange to think about in their own way as well.