A Review of Mr Breakfast

Alexander Glass on Jonathan Carroll’s new novel

‘The life I wanted didn’t want me, so I’m looking for one that does.’

Graham Patterson is driving to California, toward a job he does not want. His career as a stand-up comedian has stalled – he is not exactly a disaster, but he is just not quite good enough. The love of his life, the one person who at least half-believed in him, has decided to end their relationship. So he blows the bulk of his savings on a brand-new, lipstick-red Ford Mustang convertible (a ‘mid-life crisis car’ as Carroll once put it in a previous novel) and a snazzy camera. He knows he will probably have to abandon his dream, but nurtures the faintest of hopes that something will turn up on the road, before he is trapped forever in the mundane world of fruit and vegetable exports.

Because this is Jonathan Carroll, of course, something does turn up, but it is nothing Patterson could have predicted, or even imagined. The curtain of existence is pulled back; but can Patterson trust what he sees behind it?

Stopping in North Carolina, he comes upon a tattoo parlour, and is surprised to find himself fascinated by the illustrations, and then by agreeing to get inked himself. He chooses an unusual, intriguing design (which he will refer to later as ‘Mr Breakfast’); and this relatively small act changes everything.

Soon after, he encounters man who is clearly an alternate version of himself, but with a Mohawk and a wildly successful comedy act that incorporates material, and an attitude, that Patterson had never quite dared to try. He sees the act; and then he sees his other self being kidnapped.

All of this is really just the overture; all of it takes place in the first 35 pages of Mr Breakfast (Melville House, 2023), and – because this is Jonathan Carroll – although the curtain has been drawn back, there is another curtain behind it, and another. Carroll is the master of the woozy stumble and sway as reality uncoils. He has been compared to David Lynch, which is understandable: there is often a bright surface, with something strange and troubling beneath; his work defies easy explanation, much less summation; secrets may be revealed, but never provide easy answers.

But Lynch’s characters can often be divided into the innocent and the malevolent (though which is which is not always immediately apparent). Carroll’s characters demonstrate more subtle flaws. They may be selfish, lazy, careless of the feelings of others. Their flaws are usually tempered with self-knowledge, regret, a capacity for change, thoughtfulness, creativity, curiosity about the world. And whatever their combination of faults and virtues, they are always out of their depth.

Carroll’s prose is clean, often elegant, always vivid. There is a general sense that something unexpected – though not necessarily malevolent – lurks around the next corner, or beyond the next paragraph. Sometimes it does, but the subtle unease is not a function of what happens, but of how Carroll’s characters react to it. In two of his fifteen previous novels – After Silence and Kissing the Beehive – nothing impossible happens at all, but the atmosphere is the same.

Mr Breakfast, though, is also full of incident – magic, potentially wonderful or terrible. Patterson is told that the tattoo gives him the ability to leave his own life and watch events in the lives of two alternate versions of himself: one the Mohawked successful comedian, one who has discarded fame for domestic contentment. He can visit each, and return to his own life, a limited number of times. He may choose to live one of the other lives, or to keep living his own; but once he has made the choice, it cannot be changed. To complicate matters, his own life does not remain static: he meets a potential new love, and he discovers, with his new camera, a real (and ultimately lucrative) talent for photography.

Parts of these sections are reminiscent of Wim Wenders: the road trip recalls, slightly, Paris, Texas; the listening in on other lives recalls Wings of Desire.

But Carroll has not finished pulling back the curtains. There are glimpses back in time; there are hints of what happens after death; there is a possibility that the entities who have bestowed the gift of the ‘Mr Breakfast’ tattoo may not have been telling Patterson the whole truth; and there is a mystery, foreshadowed at the start of the book, about what ultimately happens to him.

Fans of Carroll will be pleased at small references to previous works (the children’s books from The Land of Laughs, the town of Crane’s View from Kissing the Beehive and two further books, Harry Radcliffe from the Outside the Dog Museum – probably Carroll’s best novel by a nose, and winner of a British Fantasy Award – and others). These are fun for those in the know, but Carroll works them in lightly – nothing is lost for those who have not read his other work.

The novel really comes into its own in its final section. Patterson is missing. Is he dead? Has he chosen a different life? The power of this section rests on Carroll having revealed not only that other people have received the tattoo and the choice of lives, but also that their paths repeatedly cross. This affects Patterson’s choices, and the way he views them. He is not merely choosing his own future. He is deciding on a course which will affect other people – and so are they. The interconnections matter: anyone you encounter could affect your life, perhaps unwittingly, and you could affect theirs.

The denouement is moving, subtle, quieter than the preceding pages with their repeated shifts of perspective. Characters who had seemed despicable are shown to have real, complex and sympathetic lives of their own. Antagonism between people is not determined by fate.

In the end, despite a wealth of incident, this is an introspective work, about examining one’s life and understanding what, and who, is important in it. ∎

Alexander Glass is the pseudonym of an ex-lawyer (now law lecturer) and blues guitarist who is currently living somewhere on the outer fringes of London. He is not a brain in a jar, yet, but there’s still time. His stories have been published in Interzone, The Third Alternative, Black Static, Asimov’s Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. You can read his story ‘The Ghost in the Valley’ here on IZ Digital. and he has another, ‘Sfumato’, forthcoming in Interzone #296.

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