Book Review: “Doughnut” by Tom Holt

January 13, 2018

Theo Bernstein’s promising career as a physicist blew up, along with the Very Very Large Hadron Collider, apparently because he moved a decimal point the wrong way. Now he has lost his job, his fortune, his wife, and even his fleabag apartment. The only work he can find is hauling cartloads of offal at a slaughterhouse, where he also sleeps because he has nowhere else to go. Then Theo learns his mentor, Dr. Pieter van Goyen, has died and left him the contents of a safe deposit box – which turn out to be an apple, a face-powder compact, an empty bottle, a letter offering him a job at a weird, run-down hotel, and a hint that these things are more than they seem. In fact, Pieter’s letter promises that the bottle holds fun and danger, if only Theo can work out a math problem that could either blow up the universe or create a gateway to an infinity of universes. In an infinite multiverse, not only is everything possible – it’s inevitable.

So begins Theo’s strange, exciting, and often funny odyssey through a series of possible (but unlikely) worlds. In one, cartoon animals from Disney movies have come to life and rebelled against their human overlords. In another, the Russian revolution never happened, the Roman Empire never fell, and the Pope’s palace has been relocated to Sydney, Australia. Then there are the “default setting” universes, where Theo learns to navigate among medieval villagers, Old West gunslingers, ray-gun-toting aliens, and police officers who carry silver bullets in case a werewolf needs taking down.

It seems Pieter has left Theo nothing less than a revolution in entertainment: Better than virtual reality, YouSpace makes it possible to visit an actual reality, where you can really experience what it’s like to live under different Laws of Nature. When things get a little tiresome (such as when everyone is trying to kill you), all you have to do to return home is look through the hole in the center of a doughnut. It could be amazing. It could make the shareholders filthy rich. The only problem is that Pieter died before he could complete the User’s Manual. Or did he? Either way, it’s up to Theo to work out how YouSpace works.

With the self-effacing put-upon-ness of the quintessential British comic hero, Theo goes on an impossible journey, spurred in part by clues his late, ne’er-do-well brother Max may be alive somewhere in the multiverse, hiding out from bad people he owes money to. Theo is torn between wanting to find Max and wishing he would really be dead. While both Pieter and Max turn up, less dead than expected, in different universes, Theo is forced to smash all the rules of math, logic, physics, and metaphysics, and put them together in new ways, over and over. All this just to escape from a series of increasingly escape-proof traps and dead ends in a madcap tour of far-flung realities. Just when you think Theo has figured out what is really going on, the multiverse confronts him with a new puzzle that will force him to defy the fabric of spacetime again.

This was the third Tom Holt novel I ever read, after Little People and Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages. Though there are many other titles by this author, this third book confirms for me a theory that seems almost as improbable as the mind tricks Theo performs in it: that Holt can consistently, tirelessly, sustain a flow of brilliant comedy while, at the same time, packing it with nosebleed-inducingly high-grade scientific theories and philosophical ideas. While I freely exercise my own judgment as to how much of this novel’s worldview is in the same ballpark as the truth and how much of it is whimsical leg-pulling or dogmatic tripe, I enjoyed Holt’s writing with all my heart. From a grand design that challenges you to reconsider the order of cause and effect, to sentences like “If Time is a piece of cheese, the two seconds that followed were fondue,” this book makes you think, then laugh, then grip your armrests with concern and excitement, over and over until its cleverly satisfying ending.

This is the first book in Holt’s YouSpace series, of which I have also read Book 3, The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice. As evidence that I am as ineffectual as the typical Tom Holt protagonist, I have not yet succeeded in putting my hands on Book 2, When It’s a Jar, or the latest installment, The Good, the Bad and the Smug. Other Holt titles that cry out to be enjoyed include Expecting Someone Taller, Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?, Flying Dutch, Grailblazers, Faust Among Equals, Djinn Rummy, Paint Your Dragon, Snow White and the Seven Samurai, Falling Sideways, Barking, Blonde Bombshell, and his most recent, The Management Style of the Supreme Beings.

Interested? Buy a copy here.