Eternal Sunshine and Slaughterhouse Five collide in Jonathan Carroll’s Mr. Breakfast

Review by C.J. Bunce

Does it seem like every drama these days is fixated on the topic of regret–of “paths not taken”?  This decade entertainment–books, TV, movies–has been bloated with multiverse stories, bad timelines, alternate histories, parallel paths.  Jonathan Carroll’s latest novel, Mr. Breakfast (available here at Amazon) could have been written by Charlie Kaufman.  Mr. Breakfast is, in part, a doomed romance of what ifs, a similar winding story as Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, infused with an array of tropes and elements of folklore.  With a set-up that hints at a retelling of The Swan Maiden, Mr. Breakfast follows a would-be famous stand-up comic named Graham Patterson who is also a would-be professional art photographer.  Unhappy with his past, present, and future prospects, he sets out on a journey across the U.S. where old diners and a mystic tattoo artist are called upon to bestow Graham with a supernatural opportunity to change his destiny.

“The life I wanted didn’t want me, so I’m looking for one that does.”  That is the attitude that sets the failing comic on his way to a dead-end job in California with his brother.  Patterson is stripped bare, ready for a clean slate, ready to act on anything that can give him hope of something positive.  In a small town in North Carolina, he is stricken by the window art at a tattoo parlor, and a marvelous woman named Anna Mae Collins encourages him to peruse her portfolio of body etchings.  Graham wouldn’t dream of getting a tattoo, but he chooses something to launch his life anew, so he selects the ugliest selection among a book of impressive artwork–a visual Russian nesting doll depicting a bee inside the stomach of a frog inside a hawk inside a lion.  Anna calls it “Mr. Breakfast,” since that is essentially what each figure represents.  But once she applies the tattoo she informs Graham that only very few have chosen that selection and this tattoo comes with certain important and intriguing features.

Anna the tattoo artist picked up her extraordinary powers in the East (just like Doctor Strange, Batman et al), but she does not know why her powers work, only certain parameters she picked up in Japan (think of those rules in Gremlins).  By taking certain actions Graham will be able to witness–Marley’s ghost style–three different realities, and choose ultimately which to live out: either his current path, a path where he is married to Ruth, or a path of career success where he is a millionaire stand-up comic celebrity.

In a parallel story a man named James Arthur is interviewing another marvelous woman, this one named Ruth Murphy.  She is a great storyteller with a vivid memory and envelope of rare artifacts.  She’s interesting in the same way as the librarian in W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe/Field of Dreams.  James is interviewing her since she was the long-lost love of a legendary photo artist whose biography he is writing: one Graham Patterson.  Unfortunately Graham and Ruth’s romance was cut short years ago, and Graham himself has not been heard from in years.

The writing has much in common with fables, as characters recount stories from their past as lessons for the present, like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.  Anna takes the place of the folkloric witch, someone able to bestow strange powers and gifts.  But are these visions and experiences gifts or curses?  Anna and Ruth are the most interesting characters in this novel, with Graham and James less so.  Graham returns after his first journey with knowledge from beyond that surprises her–is this the author providing his own spin on Defending Your Life?  Soon Graham encounters someone else with the same tattoo.  What are the odds?

Is the author hinting at his own views on art?  One character remarks that photography requires no talent, and Graham’s artwork seems to emulate that of Jeff Koons, the famous New York artist known for appropriating underlying works from other artists and making millions by interpreting them in new media (resulting in several lawsuits).

Are there probably going to be goods and bads in life for anyone, and the choices you make at every turn, regardless of whether you had multiple versions of yourself to get it all right as a whole?  Isn’t the grass always greener on the other side of the fence?  Carroll takes the approach of Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five, pulling Graham across reality to witness what’s possible and hopefully, ultimately, to make a decision, swapping Vonnegut’s “unstuck in time” with his own “life-slipping” concept.

Carroll is helped by bending his own rules, which aren’t quite static, so the reader is slammed around like the carnival ride The Scrambler as much as Graham.  Is this self-help fiction?  Is it dabbling around in the philosophy of the meaning of life?

Mr. Breakfast is an inverted twist on Philip K. Dick’s The Adjustment Bureau/The Adjustment Team, like a PKD short story without the drug-induced characters, but not as fun as Paycheck.  If Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is your thing, you’ll probably want to check out Mr. BreakfastAlso something for fans of tattoo art and Yanis Varoufakis’s Another Now, it’s now here at Amazon and other books shops, available from publisher Melville House.

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