A girl you’ve never met before sits down next to you on the bus home and tells you she loves you. This is weird fiction, and it asks the reader to suspend disbelief not only in the story, but also the fundamentals of human behaviour. Does it pull it off?
Title: Burnt Cake
Genre: Dystopian, Weird Fiction
Language: Hiberno English
Synopsis: Will meets a stranger named Ana who says she’s in love with him, and impulsively moves in with her. In another timeline Will never meets Ana, and travels home instead. Both timelines – swapping each chapter – merge in an unreal dimension, where the truth of Ana’s being emerges.
Chapter 1 – Ana
Will ran alongside the last bus, banging on its door for a long time before it slowed and stopped and let him on. The bus to the city had been too hot, the blazing sun barely pausing through the darkened windows, but now the bus on the way home was so cold that Will’s breath misted as he sat, shivering and sunburnt. In less than a minute when Will was at the edge of sleep, tired from cursing himself and the horrible day he’d had, the bus stopped again and a pale girl got on and sat beside him.
She took Will’s cold right hand in hers, warmed it with her breath, placed it on her breast, and said, “I’m in love with you. Are you in love with me?” Her red curls fell over her big green eyes, and her teeth were a little crooked.
“Yes,” said Will.
“Are you really?” she said. “My name’s Ana. Ana Griffith. Ana with one N.”
“I’m Will, with two L’s.”
“Stay with me here Will, in the city.”
“I have to go home now.”
“Will you be back?” said Ana. “Will you move here?”
“Yes,” said Will. “But I don’t have a lot of money.”
“It’s okay. It’ll work out. Love conquers all.”
They looked out on the night together, holding hands. The bus braked several times for men wandering in the streets, shouting or screaming or crying, slamming at the door, throwing beer bottles at the windows, pointing at the bus, accusing it. Lights flashed past as they moved, tinting the passengers differently every second – pale to orange to red to blue to black. Soon Ana put her head on Will’s shoulder and was fast asleep. He kissed the top of her head, getting lost in her curls.
Will’s parents were asleep when he walked home from the bus stop in the village so he waited until the next morning to tell them. A pair of rag-winged crows fought noisily over a twig in the yard outside.
“You can’t leave us,” said his mother Maura, crying into her milky tea. “Things are still bad out there. There’s still shortages. There could be new diseases. Someone could come and hurt us…”
“No they won’t,” said Will. “You watch the news too much. Things are much better now. They’re nearly back to normal.”
“But what’ll you do in the city?”
“Same things I do here,” said Will.
“You barely make the minimum wage,” said his father Mick, carefully making a sausage and fried egg sandwich, “and you don’t have to pay rent to us. You don’t even know who this girl is. She could be anyone. Do you not think at all?”
“She loves me and I love her.”
“What a load of bollocks. You’ll be crawling back to us by the end of the week.” As Mick bit his sandwich, the greasy egg flopped out onto the table and half a sausage launched itself towards the window where it left a red smear of ketchup, and landed in the sink.
“I have to make a life on my own,” said Will. “I’m thirty two years old. It’s normal.”
“You don’t have to go away so suddenly,” said his mother.
“I do. I have to go now.”
While his father was pulling the sausage from the plughole, Will hugged his mother where she sat crying, then took up his case and walked out.
On the bus back to the city, Will took out his phone and looked up the people he used to know. They posted photos of themselves at landmarks and cathedrals and ancient temples, their smiles white, their muscles like carved steps, huge groups of similar looking friends around them, laughing and singing drunkenly in the videos they constantly posted. They were not frightened of the world. Will would be like them soon now. They would remember they had forgotten him.
Ana met Will at the bus depot by the river and jumped up to hug him and nearly made him lose his balance.
“You can live with me,” she said. “Do you have a job?”
“Yes,” said Will. “But not a good one. I’ll start looking for a new job now.”
Will and Ana held hands as they walked through the cold, grey morning, smiling shyly even though Will felt like they already knew everything about each other. The city was called Killorriga and Will didn’t really know it. He tried to take note of the landmarks he passed: a marina stuffed with berthed sailing boats stretching out where the river widened towards the harbour, a stone clock like a miniature Gothic church, a round medieval tower with a segment of ancient wall looming over the surrounding modern buildings as if the tower and not the buildings were the alien one.
“It’s just down here,” said Ana as they turned at a statue of a man on horseback, his sword broken so it looked as if he held a butter knife aloft.
The apartment building sat off a cobbled street beside a shallow brown channel to the city’s river. The apartment doors all faced a central courtyard with a mountain of overflowing bags of rubbish, a bicycle with one wheel, a rusted washing machine, a dismembered car chassis, a smell of vomit and human waste.
“Ignore out here,” said Ana, glass crunching beneath her grey boot. “We can’t do anything about it. Just ignore it.”
The apartment was small, carpeted with red faded to pink. A table pushed by the front wall beside the single window, its light not reaching the kitchenette at the far side. A green sofa and brown armchairs with knitted pink throws. A long-legged spider ran across the bulky old television in the corner.
The sound of a door opening somewhere inside. Then another, closer. Then the door in the far wall opened and a young man entered, shorter than Will, with dark skin and cornrows, a green shirt, and a broad bright smile.
“Hello Will,” he said in a Wicklow accent. “Ana told me about you. I’m Taiwo.”
“Hello,” said Will.
“I love her,” said Taiwo, looking at Ana.
“I love you too,” said Ana. “I love you both. Is that okay?”
“Yes,” said Taiwo.
“Yes,” said Will, after a moment.
“Do you love me?” said Ana.
“Yes,” said Taiwo.
“Yes,” said Will.
Taiwo kissed Will’s cheek and went back to where he had been, shutting the three doors behind him.
Editorial comment: When reading surrealist novels (and this, if not surrealism, is something close to it), the reader is required to not only suspend disbelief about the story, the actual fiction itself, but also to further and more profoundly suspend disbelief in normal cause and effect, human nature, the rules by which normal life is governed. That’s why reading it requires a great deal of effort on the part of the reader. In return for that effort, the reader is treated to unnerving flights of fancy that challenge, in the best instances, what we thought “the rules by which normal life is governed” actually are. In the story, the impossible becomes normal, the incredible (in the true sense of the word), banal. Having read the book, we look afresh at the world around us and see links and commonplaces and thematic concurrences that we’d never noticed. Surrealism as an art movement was all about upending the rational that had plunged the world into a maelstrom of machine-aided killing (WW I). If that was the rational world, they said, let’s create an irrational one.
In this surrealist world, it’s entirely feasible that you are sitting on the bus on your normal evening commute home, where you live with your parents, and a gorgeous girl sits down next to you, professes undying love and asks her to move in with you. It’s an outlandish idea. It’s a credit to the writing that you do want to read on, rather than just give up with such an unbelievable premise, but after a page or two my attention started to wander, I’m afraid. The trouble for me was that I don’t know who Will is. I couldn’t really care less what happens to him. There was something robotic about Ana, and even something rather monosyllabic and robotic about Will, also. Are these two characters metaphors? Are they real at all?
As the story moves on and Will and Ana find her apartment, I read about the rubbish piled in the courtyard and wonder idly why? Is this society so broken that there’s no refuse collection, or is her apartment in a particularly run-down part of town? He meets Taiwo in the flat and suddenly realises that there are all sorts of possibilities that he hadn’t considered about Ana when he made his snap decision to move in with her. But I don’t really care. Silly sod should have listened to his Dad, I actually found myself thinking. What a dork!
Unless we care about Will, I don’t see that this opening encourages us to invest much in him – encourages us to take that leap and let go of everything we think we know so that we can follow Will on his story. Why do I care? He’s a bit of a sad early-thirties under-achiever who still lives with Mum and Dad (although that kind of historic perception of his circumstances is totally lacking a modern economic context). He probably sleeps in the single bed he grew up in and, only semi-ironically, uses his Superman duvet-cover as a spare when the other’s in the wash. I don’t care. Make me care first, before plunging him in to this kind of “After Hours” surreal pick-up situation.
The writing is fine – no problem with the writing – but conceptually I’m with the agents who said it wasn’t for them. They may have not given you any specific reason, but I would hazard a guess that the problem might be that you need to contextualise Will before pushing him off the deep end. How about not meeting Ana on the first page? How about the ride home (with all the weird temperature thing and men throwing bottles at the bus etc.) alone the previous night, having a row with his parents about something (or more simply looking at them and wondering where he’s going in life) and then when Ana turns up it really does seem like all his dreams have come true?
Good luck with it, and thanks for posting!
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