Tom Campbell. Photograph © Nick Cunard
Tom Campbell. Photograph © Nick Cunard

Even if you don’t remember Tom Campbell’s first book, you might remember him as that dark horse of City Hall who boasted about shoplifting.

In 2011 Campbell promptly resigned from his post at the London Mayor’s Office after explaining to the Evening Standard that he had a personal code of conduct for using chain stores: never buy, only steal.

The boast may have been a sloppily-made political statement (why not just actively buy from independents?), but nonetheless a refreshing bit of risky honesty.

Not surprising then, that Campbell counts among his influences the American novelist Jonathan Franzen, who won headlines by allegedly being rude on Oprah.

In The Corrections, Franzen’s white, angsty middle-class protagonist goes into a posh grocery store and stuffs some salmon fillets into his pocket, only for their juices to drip down his leg while he queues at the checkout. It’s a bizarre act of entitlement combining expensive tastes with wealth resentment. Annoying, but intriguing.

In Campbell’s new novel, The Planner, everyone is similarly annoying. And that makes The Planner a little bit addictive, because it’s fun to resent characters in books.

The title character James is, by all conventional definitions, boring. He works a thankless job as a town planner in Southwark Council. He spends his days poring over the finer details of a city he can barely afford to live in, surrounded by friends he finds insufferable as their vacuous success (bankers, lawyers) has come to define their personalities. They lack complexity, thoughtless amoebas blobbing their way through life.

Surely then James, martyr to his city, is more than meets the eye? Not so.

Unable to conjure any more noble motivations, James allows himself to become the mentee of high-flying ad man Felix, who introduces him to a glamorous, decadent lifestyle as a method of revving up his bland, night bus-using existence.

It’s the book’s central irony that this planner can’t plan his own life, which may be a bit overplayed – the professional/personal divide is nothing special. Fashion designers often dress badly. There are dentists with bad teeth. Lawyers who commit crimes.

Elevated to the role of protagonist, James’ task is to surprise and intrigue.

But he never does, forcing an altogether more cynical take away – there’s no enlightenment in having very little. Just more striving.

The Planner is published by Bloomsbury Circus. RRP: £12.99. ISBN: 9781408818268

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