MARCIE’S WAFFLES ARE THE BEST IN TOWN | Sunil Patel.
Spoilers Ahead. Read the story FIRST.
⇒This is a story about the apocalypse, or at least the author’s particular vision of the apocalypse (post-Meltdown), which is just one of an infinite number of apocalypse scenarios.
This is also a story about waffles.
So we have a piece about something extremely serious and something mundane and silly. In an interview with Flash Fiction Online, author Sunil Patel admits the story came about through a funny Twitter prompt: “apocalypse waffles.”
From this prompt, one would predict a story that plays around with the apocalypse conceit, a mock-serious piece. The author, however, attempts the unpredictable instead (a risky choice) and goes for serious storytelling. The result, despite the odds, is compelling and extremely successful.
The post-apocalypse genre has been around for a while, and if one is writing a story that falls into this category (Earth is a wasteland… society is no more… there is no law… etc.) one can play it straight, play it for comedy, or mix the two. So you can channel Samuel Beckett (who got a lot of comedy, or at the very least quirkiness, out of his stark landscapes and shifty characters), or you can do a Mad Max sort of thing (which is both playful and serious, or mock-serious might be the best term) or you can do the Cormac McCarthy thing and just leave everyone depressed and your hero dead in a puddle of his own blood.
Like the closely related zombie niche, the apocalypse genre’s comicality is a product of its otherworldly absurdity, its absence of rules. Which is fine, unless you want to play it serious, as the author of “Marcie’s Waffles” does; in this case, making the story serious is an uphill battle.
Let’s look at what the author did to make how this story frightening, dark, and everything that an apocalyptic world should be (despite the humor in the fact that Marcie runs a cafe in a world overrun by zombie-like creatures). Consider what the author does to create subtlety and world-build:
- Notice how subtly the surrounding “danger” of this world is conveyed. The cliche of zombies (are they zombies?) is only hinted at, given terms like “unwelcome visitors,” “riffraff,” and most ominously of all, “them.” Along with Marcie’s shotgun and the diner’s permanent Closed sign, we have a clear sense of this world’s danger.
- We see the apocalyptic setting in the character’s mannerisms and speech, their dialogue minimal (as we’d expect), their movements direct and forceful (slapping waffles on the plate, stabbing with a fork, choking the syrup bottle)–the characters are brutal, like their world.
- Exposition and backstory happen through snippets of dialogue and in quick third-person memory flashes (of various other visitors to Marcie’s diner… Where are they now? she wonders, thinking especially of “Cynda.” Cynda can never be replaced, no matter how many young women wander in here, damaged and hungry…)
- We know that Marcie’s connection to Cynda was a special one (maybe they weren’t literally mother-daughter, but it seems that was the dynamic), so as Marcie gradually realizes her ritual’s failure to bring back Cynda, her abrupt outburst seems less out-of-the-blue. It helps that we’re “in her head” (Marcie’s, that is) POV-wise.
I think the author chose the best POV to control the tone and overall seriousness of the narrative. The author exerts a great deal of tonal control over the events in this piece, considering just how silly everything is or would be if the story had a different POV, like a distant third person. Just think: at the end, Marcie is literally wringing syrup out of a waffle. That’s a totally absurd, weird, funny image, but with the careful emotional buildup and the close third person focused largely on Marcie’s grief, we don’t get the funny apocalypse-waffle story. We get the tragic, deeply felt apocalypse-waffle story.
And it’s a doozy.