These days, the term “multiverse” might bring to mind Marvel movies. However, the alternate reality trope has been around for nearly as long as science fiction stories have been told. From a century ago, when H.G. Wells described a utopian “other world” in 1923’s Men Like Gods, to Phillip K. Dick’s examination of “our world as it might have been” if the Axis Powers had won World War II in 1962’s The Man in the High Castle, all the way to Haruki Murakami’s contemporary 1Q84 (2009) which follows a woman who slips into an alternate dimension with strange differences from our own, tales of time and reality-bending in on themselves have earned their spot in the literary canon.
It’s a cannon that Johnathan Carroll knows well. The American writer, who now lives in Austria, has published over a dozen novels, many of which deal with alternate realities. Since the 1980 release of his debut novel The Land of Laughs, which explores a town that blurs the line between literal and literary reality, Carroll has followed the tradition of magical realism. With his newest release, Mr. Breakfast, Carroll stretches the question of parallel universes even further: what if you could see your life play out in three different ways?
This is the driving premise of Mr. Breakfast. The novel tells the story – or multiple stories – of Graham Patterson, who is escaping a collapsed comedy career and a ruined romance by driving from the northeastern US to California. When his car breaks down in North Carolina, he wanders into a tattoo shop where he decides on a whim to permanently adorn himself with a small, intricate design of several animals inside one another.
Unsurprisingly, this is no ordinary tattoo; it enables Patterson to visit different possibilities of lives he could lead, one where his comedy career survived and one where his relationship did. The tattoo allows him to jump back and forth between all three lives (the two parallel ones in addition to the life where he received the tattoo) before ultimately choosing the life he likes best. The catch is once he chooses where he wants to stay for good, the tattoo will disappear, and he will forget any memories of it or the alternate lives he explored.
From here, things get hairy. Though the premise of Mr. Breakfast’s plot is inherently interesting, the delivery is difficult to follow. There are several rules governing the mechanics of the tattoo (when visiting an alternate life, the current Patterson is invisible to everyone there; he only gets three visits to each timeline; there’s a ‘magic word’ he has to say to activate the process) but there are so many irregularities within said rules that it begs the question why Carroll felt the need to devise them in the first place. The physical tattoo might have worked as a symbol of life’s uncertainty and complexity, but it’s a device that ends up seeming forced.
(Spoiler ahead) Other disappointments further detract from the grandiosity of Mr. Breakfast’s concept. If readers had hope of seeing what Patterson might have been like as a successful comedian, too bad. Almost as soon as the original Patterson uses his tattoo to visit this version of himself, the successful comedian Patterson is kidnapped and murdered. Because of this, the original Patterson and readers alike get a glimpse into Carroll’s playfully imagined afterlife, but in a book designed to feel like a garden of forking paths, so to speak, the termination of one of Mr. Breakfast‘s three timelines so early on feels more like a door slammed in the reader’s face.
The underwhelming plot is made even less satisfying by the characters who populate it. Though Patterson never makes it as a comedian in the timeline where he receives the tattoo, he then effortlessly – and almost immediately – discovers fame as a photographer with nothing more than the single camera he purchased at the start of his road trip. Unfortunately, descriptions of his photography seem more like a device for Carroll to render certain snapshots to his reader rather than a genuine extension of who Patterson is. This is a particular shame considering that Carroll’s descriptions of some of Patterson’s photographs are among the most arresting imagery in Mr. Breakfast. If only they hadn’t been delivered by way of such a forced and unbelievable character trait.
Readers spend the first half of Mr. Breakfast watching Patterson bumble cluelessly through the mysteries presented by his new tattoo with no thought for the people in his life impacted by his frequent disappearances. In the novel’s latter half, we are meant to be convinced by nothing more than overwrought dialogue from others about how Patterson is a hyper-observant empath.
The only character who might be worth getting to know better is Ruth Murphy, Patterson’s lover, who either becomes his ex or wife, depending on the timeline. Unfortunately, like every other character in Mr. Breakfast, she is little more than a plot device. Ruth helps frame the recounting of one of Patterson’s lives to a journalist named James, another severely underdeveloped character. With a cast of side characters who serve only as tropes, there’s a lot of pressure riding on Patterson’s character, but every iteration of him comes up short. There are seemingly infinite possibilities for considering how the ability to see into one’s multiple possible lives might change a person; Patterson manages to avoid them all.
Furthermore, Carroll attempts to manufacture a symbolic closeness between Graham and James that comes as too little, too late and leaves readers unconvinced of any major thematic takeaways. For all the different forking paths that Carroll has explored, the scope of the novel’s imagination is limited.
With the content of Mr. Breakfast so poorly rendered, I clung to hope for the form. Perhaps Carroll would still deliver a truly stunning passage here or there. There were flashes in the pan (such as the rhythm of phrases like “the pound and rush of cars and trucks” or a memorable image of “a little girl in a frilly dress the color of pink cotton candy… sitting serenely on top of… [a] gigantic tortoise”), but they were few and far between. Furthermore, Carroll’s writing here is redundant to a fault, with a tendency to offer a character’s internal monologue to summarize the previous few pages. His dialogue is stiff and unbelievable, and his characters’ thoughts and emotions are hand-delivered to us explicitly rather than through concrete actions.
All these missteps come together to create the perfect storm for Mr. Breakfast‘s disastrous ending. There are gaping inconsistencies in the plot that remain unexplained, and the narrative’s driving question – which life will Patterson choose? – is answered not through profound revelations or soul-searching on the part of the protagonist but rather through a deus-ex-machina-type intervention in a scene with a misogynistic and ableist character.
Yet another person in Mr. Breakfast who exists solely as a vehicle to keep the plot moving is a nameless woman subject to mistreatment. She is a caricature of the worst misconceptions about mental illness, down to the “completely destroyed, laceless” shoes that she stole “out of a charity bin”. Carroll seems unable to conclude his description of any female character without rating her desirability. In this case, he assures readers that the most “striking thing about her appearance was how good-looking she was despite the “gulag-prisoner buzz cut”; good-looking enough, apparently, to “let [a man at a shelter] fuck her” in exchange for a box-cutter.
Over his career, Carroll has been compared to authors like Jorge Luis Borges and Neil Gaiman, and while the subject matter of his work merits such a comparison, the quality – at least as seen in Mr. Breakfast – does not. Those writers found a way to put a unique literary spin on the idea of an alternate reality; they took a trope and made it their own. With Mr. Breakfast, however, Carroll has been swallowed up by his own plot with the ease that one eats breakfast.