Mr Breakfast by Jonathon Carroll
Melville House Publishing, HB, £20.00
Reviewed by Rym Kechacha
Describing a book as a philosophical novel of ideas might induce dread in some. You might be thinking about info dumps, quotations from obscure German thinkers, and confusingly mind-bending problems you’ve never considered before, but Mr Breakfast by Jonathan Carroll is not at all like that. It’s concerned with the trajectory of ordinary lives such as mine and yours, and it’s propelled by those kinds of questions about heaven and earth that plague us in the small hours of the morning and as we’re sobering up after celebrations for birthdays with a 0 in the number. How could things have been different? What should I have done with my life? Is it too late to do any of those other things? And how on earth will I know?
Graham Patterson is a man in search of a direction. Failing at his dream of being a stand-up comedian, he takes a last hurrah road trip before he gives up comedy forever. Stopping along the road, he gets an unusual tattoo on impulse; an image of a bee inside a frog inside a hawk inside a lion. This gives him the ability to visit two other versions of his own life and choose which one he wants to stay in. After that, Graham’s life – all three of them – intersects with those he loves and others who have also got the ‘breakfast’ tattoo until he has to make a choice and stick with it forever.
Mr Breakfast is ultimately a novel about happiness and all the ways we find it elusive. Some who received the ‘breakfast’ tattoo chose never to visit any of their alternate lives, feeling complete satisfaction in this one, while some didn’t have to be asked twice. Every time I put the novel down, I thought about what I would do, finding it difficult to imagine I might not succumb to any curiosity at all about how my alternate lives might have been. I think I’d be too tempted, though that says more about me than it does about the circumstances of my life.
The novel gives enough information about how this deal works to avoid being confusing, yet the precise metaphysics of it or details about who or what is administrating it is left tantalisingly untold. I could easily read a sequel to this novel following the mysterious tattooist who holds many – but not all – the secrets of the breakfast tattoo or a crime spin-off featuring the two school bullies who greet Graham Patterson in the afterlife. I wanted to know more at every turn, yet I entirely trusted the writer to tell me all I needed. That sense of needing more is always a key litmus test of any novel for me, and Mr Breakfast passed easily. Carroll keeps the focus tightly on his main character in a way that leaves us wistful for whatever’s around the narrative corner and mirrors the way we move through our lives, only knowing a fraction of the stories around us.
Graham Patterson is a cleverly drawn character; everyman enough to be able to represent the reader in everything he’s experiencing but special enough for the reader to become invested in his fate.
In fact, a key question of the novel is why it is Graham Patterson who gets to have this option to completely change his life and not anyone else. Although we may have our doubts, he’s repeatedly told it’s because he chose that tattoo and no other. A random choice led him to have these remarkable experiences. To me, this was such a cunning artistic choice because isn’t that what we’re all afraid of? Not that we make the wrong call on the obvious big things: what career, what house, what spouse; but more that we could be living an entirely different reality if one day twelve years ago, we’d gone into one train carriage rather than another. That random, apparently inconsequential choices braid together to make up the fabric of our lives, and we will never be able to unpick any of it. Unless you get the breakfast tattoo, of course.