Book Review: “Mr. Breakfast” by Jonathan Carroll
Occasionally, a book comes along to read that speaks to nobody else but the reader. That was, at least, my experience with Jonathan Carroll’s latest, Mr. Breakfast. Practically every paragraph is loaded with references to something you might have experienced yourself, which goes to show just how personal this volume by the lauded magic realist is. I, myself, have had a complicated relationship with Carroll’s work — but I want to be careful with what I say because he is active here on Medium and I don’t want anything that I say to cause him offense if he were to somehow read this review. What I should probably say is that any criticism I have for Carroll’s work probably says more about me than it does about him. Carroll is one of those magic realist writers that you have to be ready for, and there are books of his that I read in the past that I simply abandoned. I’m not saying that they were horrible, but there’s something of a personal element to them — and if you, the reader, are not ready, then you’ll probably cast the book aside before completing it. It’s too bad because if you have an open mind, Carroll is a gifted writer with a European sensibility who is worth discovering.
My relationship with Carroll — if you’ll allow me a bit of an indulgence here — is, once again, complicated. Yes, I feel that his books have run either hot or cold for me (maybe this says more about me than him, too) but I also have found him to be something of an influence on my writing. I wrote a short story 20 years ago called “Hell Is Only Temporary” that was greatly influenced by Carroll’s 1982 short piece “The Jane Fonda Room.” I think both of us will admit that this short story is not the greatest piece of writing that Carroll put pen to paper, but there was something about that story that inspired me to riff off it. I did email a copy of “Hell” to Carroll at one point (If you’re somehow remotely interested in seeing my story, you can probably Google it as it should still exist on the Web) and I don’t think Carroll wound up being too impressed. I’m not sure of the reason, and perhaps it was foolish of me to even send my story to him, but this is a long way of saying that I’ve thought a lot about Carroll’s work. I appreciate his gift in transitioning scenes: he is a master of leaving a scene before it ends and then waltzing into the next scene perhaps halfway through the action. For this alone, I’d have to recommend him.
So, what about Mr. Breakfast? I don’t think it’s his best novel, but it is far from his worst — and if he were to die tomorrow, it would serve as a pretty good summation of his career. (He’s now 73 years old so, you know, he’s getting up there in age and I’m sure someone of his vintage would want to retire from writing, perhaps, at some point. He certainly owes us nothing more in terms of output because he was quite prolific for a period in the ’80s and ‘90s.) The book is about a failed comedian named Graham Patterson who is given a magical tattoo that enables him, in middle age, to see three different variations of how his life would have turned out had he made different choices. The book is disarming and, at times, heartbreaking — but does come across as reading as a collection of scenes, making it ultimately a bit disjointed. Still, there are powerful moments in the work — such as Patterson meeting up with a woman he lived with to discover that she would have stayed with him if only he had wanted to have kids. His response to this revelation is tender and sweet and might allow the reader to pause and reflect on the decisions that they have made in their own lives.
This ability to tap into the human spirit makes Carroll a master wordsmith. That said, Mr. Breakfast did — at least, to me — feel strung together a bit. There was something of a lack of focus to the work that got under my skin and I had wished that Carroll had stuck to his main premise of a man discovering what his soul truly wants rather than going down what I thought were silly rabbit holes with various subplots. Still, perhaps that says more about me than it does Carroll. If you’re already a fan of this author’s past work, you’ll probably be amused by this novel and consider it, in some ways, to be a return to narrative form after spending a few books examining the concept of chaos rather brazenly. If you’re new to Carroll, you might want to try his debut novel The Land of Laughs, which many consider being his high-water mark, instead. Regardless, Mr. Breakfast is something of a gift and I’m glad to have read it — warts and all. Carroll is a man capable of love — not only for the people in his life (I would imagine) but also for writing as well. For that, even if Mr. Breakfast might not be his best novel, he is well worth reading for those willing to suspend their disbelief and make something of a commitment to this challenging and provocative author. At the very least, you can consider him influential even if he is not a household name.
Jonathan Carroll’s Mr. Breakfast will be published by Melville House / Penguin Random House on January 17, 2023.
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