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Thursday 24 April 2014

Shelf Esteem: Who Is Tom Ditto? by Danny Wallace

Who Is Tom Ditto? by Danny Wallace
Shelf Worth: 3.5/5

Given the almost ridiculous scale of what he achieved in his 20s and 30s I take my hat off to Danny Wallace, and then for good measure, I might lie prostrate in front of this shrine that I have hastily assembled in his honour.
  • BBC producer by 22
  • Started a joyful cult, wrote bestseller about it
  • Said yes to everything for a year, wrote bestseller about it, Jim Carrey starred in mega-successful film version
  • Journalist
  • Radio presenter
  • Wrote a US TV pilot starring Laura Prepon and Buster from Arrested Development
  • Wrote a successful novel
  • More successful non-fiction books
  • Brewed a flipping beer to go with Tom Ditto
Good on him: it's nice to have a polymath around who isn't Stephen Fry. And particularly good on him because Wallace is king of the high concept, and this second novel, after 2012's Charlotte Street, spirals into glorious circles far above where you think you've started.

Tom Adoyo is a newsreader on the breakfast shift of Talk London, a commercial radio station whose attitude to money-saving and office politics is mercilessly skewered by Wallace. The antisocial hours and lack of daylight have exacerbated Tom's depressive disorder, and the terrible behaviour of the show's host, an ageing star from the 1980s, exacerbates his general dismay at his career.

But before all that there's a bolt from the blue on page one. Hayley, his girlfriend of nearly two years, leaves him: or rather, leaves him a note saying she's gone, but she hasn't left him, and that drives Tom up the wall. He's even more confused when a girl called Pia starts following him, but in between wondering if he's going mad and whether Hayley even existed, soon little changes happen to Tom that make life both more fun and possibly more fulfilling than when Hayley was around.

Wallace plays on his radio experience and his non-fiction in a dizzyingly creative book that has twists and developments that take you exactly where you want to go without realising you wanted to in the first place. The same cinematic style seen in Charlotte Street is on show here, with chapters that end like film shots, so much so that I could practically hear the accompanying music. It's even in the background: from the moment emails about jam in cupboards and putting away "YOU'RE COFFEE CUPS" start coming from the station's disembodied HR jobsworth Maureen you're steepling your fingers and eagerly awaiting the pay-off.

The exceptionally funny Wallace has a fantastic line in descriptions and one-liners, but this is off-set by less convincing characters. For me, this is partly due to his style of "Funny thing. And then another funny thing. And some leaping around in the text and then words." This is drastically toned down from his Shortlist column which read like the dance of the hilarious bumblebee, but I would love to see him settle down into something more measured because his ideas are so astonishingly good. Still, there is a real step up from Charlotte Street, in that everyman Tom feels like a person rather than a cypher for Wallace's jokes. He is largely recognisable and sympathetic, even if you don't fall in love with him. Even Hayley, who spends most of the novel about as fleshed out as a stickman, gets her day.

There are some interesting questions raised about quality of life, what you do with it and how much you borrow from the people around you. But I can't wait until Danny Wallace, master of the genius idea, cracks it from the reader's perspective too. That book is going to be quite something.

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