Sometimes a work of art invites us to abandon ourselves to bewilderment, to nonlinear narrative, and trust that our emotional responses are all part of the ride. Think of “Waiting for Godot”; for everything that play lacks — a logical narrative, any sense of closure — it remains endlessly compelling, moving, even distressing. Meghan Tifft’s new novel “From Hell to Breakfast” works in the same vein, providing a deeply satisfying and mysteriously tear-inducing story to those willing to follow this sometimes confounding journey.
The book starts with an incredibly odd scene, treated nonchalantly enough to disarm us: Dracula, who has been sleeping upright inside of a coffin in his closet and dreaming of sunlight, wakes to find that Lucinda, his girlfriend, is crying. He loves her very much, even though he finds communicating with her difficult, because she talks in cliffhangers, never quite reaching her point before getting distracted by some new topic. As she rails on — about her mother, the mail and her certainty that her boyfriend secretly wants to murder her — Dracula finds himself preoccupied by her “raw rustling currents of golden hair,” “the smooth bisque of her skin.”
Dracula is a bit miffed with himself about it all: “What a silly predicament for someone of his infernal status to walk himself into. How did he take such tasteless and lackadaisical terms here, heading right into apartment living with the first girl he spares, and leaving the night a mere curio outside his window.”
In truth, Lucinda’s communication style is not entirely her fault. She was raised by a mathematician stepfather who sustained a brain injury, and has, ever since, been trying to piece together the randomness of the universe. Her mother, whether as a reaction to her husband’s disability — she calls him a dimwit at one point — or simply because this is who she is, also has a hard time sticking to a single conversational thread. Lucinda is constantly asking her mother, “What?” just as Dracula is chronically asking his girlfriend the same thing. Readers will no doubt be craving clarification, too. It can be frustrating at times, feeling always in the dark, but the interactions nevertheless keep propelling us forward.
And where are we going? That’s difficult to summarize, but the key elements of the plot include the fact that Lucinda’s brother, Warren, has started creating spray-painted art installations of dead pigeons in an attempt to become a kind of local Banksy; that Dracula works a night shift at UPS and got Warren a job there too; that when Dracula leaves that job, and Lucinda leaves hers, they can’t afford to pay rent anymore; and then there’s the play. The play, also titled “From Hell to Breakfast,” is one constant throughout the whole befuddling narrative, as Lucinda goes to and returns from acting classes and then rehearsals, sometimes in costume, always confused and increasingly weak, because she’s stopped eating.
But these plot points aren’t the real source of tension in the book, nor are the various disappearances or deaths that occur on the periphery. The engine that propels us forward is a sense of mystery — a mystery whose resolution is constantly just one step beyond our reach. While the central pair in the novel appears to be just as in the dark about the mechanisms of their lives as the reader, everyone around them seems confidently aware of what’s going on, and they find our collective confusion a nuisance. This gives the book a dreamlike quality, as we stumble around in scenes that alternate between fantastical and achingly, if absurdly, real.
In its opaquest moments, the novel serves ingeniously as a Rorschach test for our own perceptions and concerns, leading us to look for the answers and logic we want and maybe even find them — until the next scene upends our previous analysis, the blots all changing shape. It takes a certain kind of reader to go for this book, but anyone enjoying the experimental, the strange and the dreamy — not to mention Tifft’s exquisitely specific and strange descriptions — will surely find much pleasure in “From Hell to Breakfast.”