IF Comp 2019: Summer Night City

summernightSummer Night City (ghoti, Twine) is a piece about paranoia, covert resistance and bartending. For unclear crimes, the protagonist has been captured and blinded by the oppressive Republic; he is now in a halfway house and employed as a bartender, but still effectively a prisoner.

The writing was a big problem for me. The narrative is going for something in a Kafka kind of vein – paranoia that verges into surrealism. But the prose is a lot more purple than that.

The realisation brings a sense of relief utterly foreign as the fear hitherto gripping my mind turns hollow; the next instant sees its submission to the much stronger sway of reason. I still am in danger, of course, and to let my guard down would not be prudent in the least, but I am certain now that the threat is not an immediate peril but a lurking menace, one whose exact nature remains to be seen. And if, as the earnest magnitude of his voice seems to suggest, there is even the slightest chance of survival, it is absolutely critical that I pay religious attention to my surroundings at all times.

This is not Proustian prose, here, spilling out immense sentences in order to precisely trace out the exact quality of a complex feeling. This is Gothic prolix, closer to Poe and Lovecraft than to Kafka. (Elsewhere, it uses ‘miasma’ and ‘ululating’ in the same paragraph.) Particularly early on in the text, it tends to take up a lot of space and elaborate construction to say pretty straightforward things. It draws attention to the language and away from its subject, and that leads to confusions. The first time through the first chapter I got the idea that the blindness was metaphorical, purely because metaphors about groping blindly are very common in purple prose about suffering.

This gets somewhat better once you’re past the first chapter, particularly around dialogue, but there are still quite a lot of quirks in the language. One example that really caught my attention: the story constantly refers to a group of varieties of liquor as ‘alcohols’, which is technically incorrect – alcohol in this sense is an uncountable noun, and if you’re using it as a countable noun you’d be talking about the chemistry sense, as in “methanol, ethanol and butanol are all monohydric alcohols”. In its effect, though, it makes the speaker seem like someone who has never really been around booze, is a bit prim and disapproving about it, and is intentionally on getting the usage a little bit wrong to make sure everyone knows this. And I genuinely don’t know if this is an intentional effect or not. Similarly, I’m not completely confident about whether certain odd, stilted interactions with characters are meant to feel odd and stilted.

And this is a shame, because there’s something to this story, a surreal haze of obscurely-motivated characters and implausible spycraft where ludicrously paranoid theories turn real. But I think it needs a more exact command of language before it can fully deliver that.

There is one puzzle in the game, in which you have to send a covert message that signals where your halfway house is, so that the resistance movement, the Discrepancy, can rescue you from it. It is possible to solve it through brute force without understanding why it worked. (I still don’t really get it.)

The game’s title is taken from an ABBA song, and the game links to the music video in its splash page. I cannot really make out how the two are related. If I look at the video and put on my Surreal Dystopia goggles I can make it read that way – the insistent rhythm, the weirdly-lit nocturnal environments, the faint creepiness of ABBA’s standard mode of facing the camera dead-on and motionless while singing – but it’s a completely different vibe of Surreal Dystopia than the game. The game never gave me Sinister Disco vibes: it felt like a much quieter bar than that, the kind of bar where a blind man with no prior bartending experience has the time to learn.

The delivery’s off, here, and not everything that the author wanted to come across is reaching me. 4.

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