This is an interesting premise – an apocalypse that isn’t the main focus of the story. So what is the main focus, and how quickly does the author bring it to us?
Title: PRAYER TO WHOOSHICREE
Genre: Literary Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: Robert Martin is an actor in the economy’s collapse. He is criminalised. He has to conceal himself. A tsunami forces him to flee. Throngs of refugees arrive. He unbiddenly finds and shelters a downbeat little orphan. The child changes his life. They will try to build a new life together.
Actually, this all began with an end. It all expired the same. And if I now start recounting everything, just today, it’s because we are indeed after the second time I have ceased to exist. Two months ago.
Yes, some of it was impending, proximate, it was in the corner of many people’s minds. But it’s easier to turn away, to shun the whispers of the looming reprisal. It always is. Yet I still could not have predicted these particulars: that I was to be no longer who I had been; that a perishing orphan would reinstate my existence; nor that dusk and night were to follow, and how tireless foes would bid to shatter our lives thereafter. I have to say it now, what for so many was their termination, ultimately birthed an unforeseeable transcendent genesis for some. It was to be my case. Until they came.
A journalist had called “The Great Ternion” the successive occurrences that were to upturn any frame of reference. Here hunkered the early stages of my disintegration. First the shutdown of the world’s economy, then the submersion of the lands. The former was why I holed up like a quivering rodent. The latter was the reason I fled to Narone. The world was turned off. But this is not what I am compelled to write about. That stated, the preamble goes like this: initially, the whole macrocosm of finance went asunder. Once and for all. I was in it. The personal assistant of a major bank’s directress. A bankster I was, into toxic investment packages, all things like that. All lies. Systemic bankruptcy, riots and the election of Brigit Margana and her messianic party followed suit. My indictment, with all of us tricksters, too. Either flee abroad or go into hiding were our sole options. I ducked in Odestine, backstage. Off all lists, rented cottage, forged papers, two burners, stack of cash. Last presents from the bank. And propitiously, with a ridiculously ordinary name, and every other man’s physique. One in millions. I even kept Robert Martin for my fake.
Secondly, the tsunami hit. The calving of a fifth of Greenland was the cause. Odestine, a seashore town, would be dismantled within hours. The terror pulsing in everybody, the flight inland, the drive through the desolate land parched by a procession of scorching heatwaves, with tufts of grasses the color of pale hay freckling the dusty soil that had powdered the road. But this is common history, almost anyone of us remembers. It is still not the story I have to tell.
I arrived in Narone three hours after having fled. An exodus, I have to call it. That was the first time I was nullified. It will all begin here, all I must confide. Narone, like many in Grandvince: orange, grey, black, blue; brick, concrete, asphalt, glass. A cluster of cuboids, for the most part. All but the dead center, yellow limestone, porous. I had worked here, in the past. The hotels were fully booked. Escapees like me. I explored the side streets, farther out. In one I noticed a dangling sign bearing the name Excelsior Hotel, in Gothic letters, white on green. Chimes tinkled at the door. A younger woman presenting herself as Chiara led me to a room on the third floor, at the end of the hallway. She was smallish, sylphlike, her skin pale, translucent – watery flashed in my head – her eyes shifty, hazelnut, and so her hair, tied back in a bun. Oodles of light streamed in from both windows. It had two beds and almost everything a small apartment would offer. Its decoration was strikingly outdated. Vestigial. It would become so important a place.
I went back out to get the car. It was now visible, a good number of people had been arriving, they were roaming about, looking lost, asking each other if they knew where to stay, detailing their peregrination.
Then, back in the room, since the clicker for the television was on the desk, I switched it on. The end of a take from a helicopter above unrolled: a city’s high-rises, dismembered, warped, in the sea. So it had happened, doubtlessly. Somebody thudding down from the floor upstairs stirred me, and when I heard a young voice call, “Mama, Mama!” I thought it also came from the staircase. No, it echoed from the television. The next scene, elsewhere. A camera scoured a boggy surface for a moment, then settled to zoom on a small oblong shape protruding from the thick, filthy liquid. It was the head of a child, not too far from the bank, alive, framed by two husks of dark, wet lank hair. The traits were those of a girl. The face seemed to be smeared with petroleum, as the cameraman still focused in all they could. The kid made attempts to move, with her arms, as if she had wanted to swim. But her body did not follow, as though something underwater had clamped her feet. The screen was now filled with that face, her imploring eyes through which resignation had started to transpire as well. The correspondent and an assistant merely stood there, filming, mute. The child was maybe twelve. Each time she tried to free herself, she was pulled down, inch by inch by an invisible clasp beneath her. At last, staring at the vacuity that loomed before her, she cried out, “Mama, te quiero tanto, Mama, te quiero…” and trying once more to break loose from the ghastly grip dragging her down, she sank, slowly, her bewildered eyes wide open. The camera was still recording, recording the oozy boil of the sludge where she had ebbed down and the lazy bubbles pokily emerging. The implacable silence filled the bog again. “You didn’t film that, mate…Did you?” went a woman’s stutter. A condensing chill enveloped me. My wits had been singed. I shut the set off.
This almost wilfully obtuse kind of opening is not for me. Others might differ, but if I have to struggle to understand the first few sentences, I’m not going to read any further. What does “we are indeed after the second time I have ceased to exist” even mean? “Yes, some of it was impending, proximate, it was in the corner of many people’s minds. But it’s easier to turn away …” What is “it”? Who knows; who, to be frank, cares?
I urge everyone who submits here to pay attention to what I think is the basic premise of writing novels – get your reader involved in the story as fast as possible. That usually means getting them empathising with the main characters as fast as possible. What you have here as your opening few paragraphs may be clever wordplay (I don’t actually know and, unfortunately, what you have here has given me zero incentive to find out), but it’s not engaging, unless you count the same kind of mental acuity that’s engaged in solving a particularly hard cryptic crossword. In my agent persona, it’s a hard pass from me.
Now, I’m not actually an agent, and you’ve taken the trouble to submit for a bit of feedback on the opening few pages. So let’s just cut the first two paragraphs in their entirety (150 words) and start again with the third para. Now the first two sentences we’re thinking – more of the same. But wait. The third sentence, “First the shutdown of the world’s economy, then the submersion of the lands.” The more grammatically astute of you might be saying, “But it’s not a sentence, is it?” and you’d be right. It’s a sentence fragment. But it proposes a fairly dramatic premise that’s immediately interesting – a financial crisis followed by some kind of climate-change catastrophe? OK. The only thing missing is whose story we’re reading. The narrator is undefined – we know nothing about him apart from his self-absorption. After all, the world has come to a crashing halt with presumably millions/billions dead, yet the story is all about his disintegration.
But read on, and there are some fairly apocalyptic events transpiring – a fifth of Greenland [glacier ice, I’m presuming] has fallen into the sea, generating the mother of all tsunamis that inundates presumably the entire east coast of the US and large parts of western Europe. It’s not really clear how this is related to the financial collapse that preceded it, or if indeed it is connected, but there’s a big canvas that this story is going to be played out on. But the book isn’t about any of this. “It is still not the story I have to tell.” OK. You (finally) have me interested. What’s going to be more impactful than all of this?
(There’s no reason why, of course, a climate catastrophe has to be centre stage in a story, even if it’s the background to it. Will Self’s The Book of Dave occurs after a similar deluge has rendered most of southern England remote unconnected islands, but that story isn’t about that inundation either – it’s merely the setting. Nevil Chute’s On the Beach barely mentions the causes of the nuclear armageddon that is, ultimately, going to kill off everyone in the book. So there’s plenty of literary precedent for what your proposing.)
What follows is a (slightly remotely narrated – I’d try and make it a more direct narrative, if possible) unfolding of various vignettes of the disaster. Of course, these are related in order to let us know what the main character feels about the events – we get the sense of his horror at the child disappearing below the sludge, and that’s presumably going to colour what happens when he and the child mentioned in the synopsis come together, so that’s all good.
After a very slow and needlessly complicated start, I think this has promise and, of course, with what’s happened globally this summer, stories of deluge and fire are very much in the public mind. A publisher would be interested, I think but if, and it’s a big if, they read past the first few paragraphs. That’s how critical the very start to a book is.
I’m going to award a silver star, because, with a bit of tweaking (read, deletion) to the very first few opening paragraphs, this might get an agent or publisher to request “a full” (a copy of the full manuscript), if only because of its topicality and ambition. I personally think there’s a slightly worrying remoteness about the narrator “voice”, but that’s something that could be teased out in discussion with an interested publisher.
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