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Lothlorien by way of New York, January 6, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
In this year's Comp, there’s no author braver than David Gürçay-Morris. “I would like you to directly compare my writing to Joan Didion’s scalpel-sharp prose, please” is a sentence uttered by no sane writer ever, and yet his entry invites the player to do just that. Elvish for Goodbye isn’t just a riff on Didion’s seminal kiss-off to New York City, Goodbye to All That – the author’s note at the end acknowledges a debt to Calvino too, and appropriately enough for elf stuff, there’s some light linguistics as well – but it does take some of its subject matter from the essay, and even redeploys a few specific lines and incidents to its own purposes. Hell, the blurb even uses a quote as its epigram, going out of its way to draw the player’s attention to the Didion connection at the outset rather than take the comparatively-safer option of pointing it out in the afterword! This is foolhardiness taken to the extreme, so while I can’t condone the author’s choices, I can certainly admire the courage on display.
The above could read as though I’m setting up the author for a savaging, trying to buck him up before the evisceration. Nothing could be further from the truth! Elvish for Goodbye is lovely and loving, a literary tribute to a writer who clearly had an impact on the author, and if holding Didion’s model close to mind meant that I was hyperaware of every slightly-inapt metaphor or just-too-long sentence, that’s just the price for taking such a big swing.
(This is maybe an opportune time to say this is another review where I get spoilery. For best results, you should probably play the game – and read or reread the Didion essay – before continuing).
The story of the game is simple. The protagonist, a writer himself, encounters a woman who was among the last to live among the lost city of the elves; she tells him of that city, of the time she spent there, and how that time came to an end (she’s the Didion character, in other words). The protagonist is callow, the writer experienced; he asks questions, she responds. There’s some interactivity – you can pick the place where the two first meet and decide exactly how in-depth you want the protagonist’s questions to be, as well as putting a little bit of English on his reaction to the final revelation of the Elven city’s fate – but this is largely expressive interactivity; it doesn’t seem like the plot or its overall vibe changes much regardless.
I think this was probably the right call – the effectiveness of the game relies very heavily on the mood it conveys as well as the diptych it forms with Didion’s essay, and being able to rewrite the substance or even the sequence of events too broadly would threaten that. Besides, having made my initial choices, I can’t conceive of wanting to go back and make different ones. Indeed, there’s even a passage that underlines this:
"She remarked that one hard lesson of her early years in Wild Idyll had been learning that a tale’s accuracy was far less important than the specificity with which it was told. That those details and particularities, the minutiae of actions and adjectives, were what lodged in our memory, more than a sense of the tale’s 'truth.'"
(Yes, the Elven city is called “Wild Idyll”, an inversion of the Idlewild airport – rechristened JFK after the assassination – where Didion first alights).
The game does a good job with this specificity. Here’s the protagonist reflecting, as a spoken-word performance comes to a close, on the fact that the image he’d formed of the Didion-analogue from her writing and recordings was some ways distant from her reality as a person:
"Of course I didn’t know that at the time, couldn’t have known it, not until after the desultory applause that greeted the show’s end as idol-smashing houselights flickered to full."
This extends to the descriptions of the city, too:
"Oh, those trees! Never before had I seen trees like those of the Idyll: soaring to heaven, their leafy crowns a crystal mosaic sky of greens aglow in golden light, backed in sapphire. These towers of living wood sheltered the great city of Elvenkind. Their immense verticality and spreading canopy formed living caverns in which districts and neighborhoods, each centered about a verdant plaza, were strung together by the grassy esplanades and riverbed boulevards that meandered through the city’s glens and dells."
The writing isn’t quite as clean when it shifts into narrative mode, though. As it turns out, the city was lost because one day, the Elves up and left. Here’s the moment where that’s revealed:
“When Wild Idyll disappeared, those of us left behind–the non-elvenkind of the city–well, I think we half-thought the whole blessed city had blown away! There had been a storm the night before, and while the rain was gone by dawn, a wind had persisted in blowing across the city all morning. For an insane instant the idea that the wind had just picked up the city and carried it away truly seemed like the most reasonable explanation for the Idyll’s sudden absence. We were, after all, always comparing it to a fleet of sails, a field of flags, or a flock of kites.”
There are good images here, but the hesitation of “half-thought”, the adjectivitis and adverbitis of the third sentence, undercut their power. Again, this isn’t anything that I’d normally harp on, but I can’t picture the real Joan Didion saying, much less writing, sentences like these.
Another departure from Didion, this one I think intentional, is that where her essay dwells on the social world she encountered in New York, and the shifting impact that society has on her psychological well-being, the game largely ignores such considerations in favor of an extended riff on Elvish linguistics. We’re told that there are hundreds, if not a thousand, different words the Elves use for goodbye, depending on who’s doing the leaving, their relative social rank, the emotional tenor of the present encounter, and on and on and on. This maybe gets a little tedious – you’re given an option to have the protagonist cut some of the exposition short, blessedly – but it’s all in service of the reveal that there’s one last, most important and permanent word for goodbye (were I tempted to cross-pollinate LA literary icons, I suppose I could label it the Big Goodbye):
"This last ‘goodbye’ was a great equalizer–if such can be said of a word–because it existed in only one form, with total disregard for rank or relation, for being the one leaving or the one left behind. It could be literally translated as ‘goodbye to everything, forever’; or more poetically as ‘goodbye to…all that.’” She made a gesture with her hands which simultaneously took in the world around us, and shooed it all away."
That’s a good punch-line, and reconnection with Didion, but a groaner nonetheless, and exemplifies as well as anything else the tightrope the game has to walk: hew too closely to the original essay, and you risk just saying stuff she said earlier and better, or take it as a point of departure and risk the cognitive dissonance of doing non-Didion stuff in your Didion homage. And I admit that while by this point I felt like the game was doing about as well striking that balance as could be expected, I wasn’t sure the game was worth the candle. My mind was changed by the final few sequences, though. After the elves leave, the woman and her compatriots ruminate on their sudden departure means – apologies for one last lengthy quote:
“I find it much harder to see when things end. Even though I know the truth of this with respect to the small, everyday endings, some very human part of me remains convinced that when it comes to the grand things, those events which define a generation or an entire people for generations to come: those moments, surely, must tower before us, clear to see! … I understood, in that moment when I knew what the missing word for ‘goodbye’ must be, that this was exactly the opposite of the truth: the ending of a whole world is, in fact, the hardest thing to see… The specificity of beginnings always eclipse the tattered endings carpeting the ground of its arrival.”
This is compelling in its own right – to take one potential application among many, I feel like anyone who’s had a serious breakup or gotten divorced would recognize something true in that passage – and it also completes a thought Didion left hanging in her essay; “it is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” is the opening of Goodbye to All That, and she circles back around to having missed the ending of her love affair with New York by the close of the essay, but simply leaps to her newfound sense of disgust at the things that used to delight her without reflecting on what could have changed and why she missed noticing the shift.
Elvish for Goodbye also has a more regenerative approach to what to make of such endings. The very close of Didion’s essay reads to me like sour grapes; she talks about how the last time she was in New York, everyone was “ill and tired” or had moved away, unconvincingly counterposing this with her idealized moonlit, jasmine-scented Los Angeles life – or maybe I’m projecting, as someone who grew up in the New York burbs and passed a good portion of my twenties in the city, but is still reconciling himself to living in LA despite the fact that I’ve been doing it for fifteen years! But in the game, the city of the elves that passed away is the same as the human city that the protagonist now inhabits, completely different yet completely the same – which feels to me like a more plausible account of the way change and continuity intertwine in the wake of great upheavals, which can make you feel like an exile when you’ve only walked a few steps, or feel like you’ve returned home when you travel thousands of miles to a place you’ve never been.
It takes a little while to get there, but ultimately Elvish for Goodbye transcends being a mere Didion pastiche, and winds up in dialogue with her essay without suffering unduly from the juxtaposition – a neat trick to manage! Indeed, there’s a way in which its vision has the last laugh, for despite the emphatic never-going-back-there tone of Goodbye to All That, some twenty years after writing it Didion did return to New York, and stayed there for the closing decades of her life. The game prompts us to ask, did she come back to the city, or did she find one anew? And what language could she use to describe this combined valediction and salutation? Elvish for Goodbye suggests an answer, though it doesn’t tell us how to pronounce it.