"Breakfast in the Ruins" is Michael Moorcock's companion volume to his classic, "Behold the Man." (I hesitate to call it a sequel, because it isn't clear whether the events of "Breakfast in the Ruins" happen before those of "Behold the Man," afterwards, or in some alternate timestream.) Together, these two works serve as the yin and yang of Moorcock's literary universe. "Behold the Man" uses the well-worn science fiction conceit of time travel as a way to explore the human capacity for self-deception, and the role that religion plays in that self-deception. "Breakfast in the Ruins" uses the science fiction conceit of alternate realities to explore the injustice with which human beings treat each other, and the role that race, ideology, and morality play in this injustice.
Like "Behold the Man," "Breakfast in the Ruins" focusses on Karl Glogauer, a neurotic, narcissitic, and self-absorbed Londoner living in the early 1970s. "Breakfast in the Ruins" begins with Karl Glogauer's chance encounter with a male Nigerian tourist in a rooftop garden restaurant in London. They find each other attractive, so they end up retiring to the hotel where the tourist has been staying. There, they begin a sometimes steamy, sometimes peculiar, homosexual tryst that is described with some (but not too much) explicitness. The tryst serves as a way for Glogauer and his new friend to learn more about each other, and in the process become more like each other. Moorcock imbues their night together, from its beginning to its ambiguous ending, with symbolism that fortunately doesn't get too heavy-handed.
For some reason, the tryst also causes Karl Glogauer to momentarily experience (if ever so briefly) the lives that a variety of alternate Karl Glogauers are experiencing in a variety of alternate realities. These alternate realities come and go in flashes, with Glogauer retaining little more than his name in each one. In one instance, he is a five-year-old boy living through the brutal suppression of the Communards in the Paris of the 1870's; in another especially disturbing reality, he is an American soldier from Arizona annihilating the village of Son Lon during the Vietnamese War. In all of these flashbacks, Glogauer is either the victim of injustice, the perpetrator, or a bit of both. Glagauer enters each alternate reality as the injustice is about to occur, and stays with that reality until the injustice reaches some unpleasant conclusion.
The alternate realities pass by in an unrelenting stream, one after another, until we reach the Karl Glogauer of some futuristic London twenty years into the future, in which civilization has collapsed, and Glogauer is approaching his own death. The overall effect is one of utter hopelessness and despair, with no solutions offered and very little in the way of humor to relieve the plodding monotony of Moorcock's message. It makes one wonder: why write an entire novel like this, when ritual suicide would have been more satisfying?
Moreover, as a novel, "Breakfast in the Ruins" doesn't really hold together that well - certainly not as well as "Behold the Man." The use of alternate realities to explore the injustice of humanity seems clever at first, but quickly becomes tiresome and gimmicky. Why do Glogauer's sexual activities produce this peculiar side effect, anyway? And why does he always visit these alternate realities at precisely the moment when some injustice is about to happen? Even with all of the injustice in these other worlds, one would think he would still have a better chance of visiting his alternate selves while they are sleeping, taking a shower, or going to the bathroom. This is a case where the plot device draws too much attention to itself, rather than moving the story along gracefully and unobtrusively.
Fortunately, the alternate Glogauers in "Breakfast in the Ruins" are not as neurotic or as irritating as the Glogauer of "Behold the Man;" otherwise, the book would have been unreadable. Some of the Glogauers are, in their own ways, begrudgingly admirable - often trying to make it and survive in a reality that is very often hostile. Some of their stories are also engagingly written. However, this is not enough to keep this book from being a tough slog. It is hard to get through and hard to digest, however universal or important its message. I would skip this one unless you have an overwhelming desire to be depressed. Read "Behold the Man" instead; it's a much better work.