Review: ‘Swimming in Flame,’ by Jonathan Carroll
Quick with a label, critics have called Carroll a magic realist, a slipstream novelist, a writer of supernatural thrillers and the creator of modern fairy tales. He does check all these boxes, while remaining elegantly sui generis.
His prose is spare, polished and quick-moving, sometimes lightly comic, always immensely engaging. At the same time, his plots — including that of his new novel, “Mr. Breakfast” — depict the abrupt irruption of the uncanny and terrifying into our familiar workaday world.
His dozen-plus novels and nearly 40 stories regularly feature ghosts and demons, reincarnation, wishes that come true, sinister dream-worlds, characters who overlap from book to book, and, not least, shifting, alternative realities that would make even Philip K. Dick’s head spin. Little wonder that Carroll’s most ardent admirers include Neil Gaiman, Jonathan Lethem and Joe Hill.
Throughout his work, Carroll regularly links an almost surreal eeriness to a love story, one often involving a privileged but psychologically wounded protagonist.
Just consider his first four novels. Stephen, in “The Land of Laughs,” lives in the shadow of the movie star father who has blighted his life; Joseph, in “Voice of Our Shadow” (1983), is obsessed with a juvenile-delinquent brother, whose death he accidentally caused; Cullen, in “Bones of the Moon” (1987), mourns the unborn child of her abortion; and Walker, in “Sleeping in Flame” (1988), discovers the mind-boggling truth about his mysterious origins.
In Walker’s case, those revelations involve — and this is the kind of thing you find all the time in Carroll’s universe — a very real and sinister Rumpelstiltskin and other figures from the darker Grimm fairy tales.
While “Mr. Breakfast” is pure pleasure to read, it does call to mind the themes and sleights-of-hand associated with films such as “Inception,” “Total Recall,” “Groundhog Day” and “Back to the Future.”
Graham Patterson, age 42, has just broken up with the woman he loves, Ruth Murphy. She wants children, he doesn’t. For years, Patterson has worked as a comedian, hoping to make it big, but he has finally recognized that that’s never going to happen.
So, his life in tatters, he buys a new car and a camera, aiming to slowly wend his way from New York to Los Angeles, where his well-to-do brother will give him a job. But in North Carolina, the new car unexpectedly breaks down, and, while waiting to have it fixed, Patterson happens upon a tattoo shop operated by the nondescript, middle-aged Anna Mae Collins.
Captivated by the exquisiteness of her art, Patterson flips through her design book and decides to be inked with the image of “a bee inside the stomach of a frog inside the stomach of a hawk inside the stomach of a lion.” Few people choose this tattoo, Anna-Mae tells him, but doing so marks the turning point of Patterson’s life.
Science fiction is more than just a reaction to the present
I don’t want to spoil any of Carroll’s surprises, but I can safely say that Patterson discovers he has been granted a magical gift: the chance to experience three different possible futures.
He can continue in the present reality, in which he will eventually become a world-famous photographer. Or he can become the successful comedian he has so longed to be. Or he can marry Ruth and settle for quiet domestic happiness.
What’s more, he can pass into and out of each of these “lives” as many as three times, but then must stop sampling and choose to remain in one, at which moment he will instantly forget about the two others or that things could ever have been different.
Let me stress that this is just the novel’s setup. A flurry of fantastic stuff will happen to Patterson and a small circle of recurrent characters.
He will, periodically, encounter the chief bully from his high school days — who is technically dead, but also an emissary from the afterlife sent to either guide him or mislead him. He will be kidnapped and temporarily reincarnated, dodge ravenous flying dinosaurs, and — most unsettling of all — revisit his hometown, Crane’s View (the setting for several earlier Carroll novels). Yet through it all, Patterson ponders the overarching question: What ultimately matters most to him? Wealth and fame? Satisfying work? Art? Love and family? Fundamentally, “what was better — a special life, or a peaceful one?”
Such metaphysical questions, which recur throughout Carroll’s work, invest “Mr. Breakfast” with a distinctive moral dimension.
As Patterson leapfrogs back and forth through time and among his various possible existences, he gradually comes to understand “how his behavior influences and shapes others’ lives even after he was long gone from them.”
Along the way, several women provide advice, warnings and insight. Anna Mae instructs “Gray-ham,” as she calls him, in how the tattoo operates. The young Ruth, sounding both wise and platitudinous, reminds him that “life is just what it is. All we can do is work hard and love hard, try to do the right things without letting our ego trip us up, and hope the boogeymen stay away for another day.” The Greek widow Antheia Lambrinos, however, offers Patterson more earthy counsel — and discloses that she, too, bears the same curious tattoo.
More reviews by Michael Dirda
Throughout the book’s main narrative, Carroll gradually reveals Patterson’s genius as a photographer, his ability to observe closely, to see the artistic possibilities in both a deserted diner called Mr. Breakfast or a girl with autism playing joyfully in the rain with two dogs.
Of course, paying attention is the chief skill of the writer, too. When Patterson notices a diner’s daily special, Carroll has him suddenly remember “chipped beef on toast — his favorite meal when he was a little boy. His mother made it for lunch every Saturday. Their tradition — just before noon he would prop up a portable metal tray in front of the television set and his mother would bring in the chipped beef on toast just as his favorite cartoons were about to start.” If that’s not pure happiness, what is? But when Patterson visits his now middle-aged high school sweetheart, he is left harrowed and heartbroken.
“Mr. Breakfast” is the first Carroll novel in several years, but it seems to me as masterly as his earlier books. It will surprise you, make you laugh and scare you — and then, just when you think it’s over, add several extra twists before bringing this Rubik’s Cube of a story to just the right, emotionally muted conclusion.
Melville House. 272 pp. $27.99
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