Books

David Cohen
Disappearing Off the Face of the Earth

This second novel from David Cohen, a well-regarded short-fiction author, concerns Ken, whose narration seems deliberately bland; he’s a bit of a no-hoper but one competent enough to have opened a depressing self-storage facility in a desolate part of Brisbane. Then there’s Bruce, whom Ken has worked with for the past five years, “a weird prick but I’d come to accept his idiosyncrasies”, including a slight proclivity for low-grade crime and a fondness for repeating characters’ names back to them (“Sorry, Ken”).

The people leasing the storage units are going missing increasingly often, a circumstance Ken and Bruce call “Disappearing Off the Face of the Earth”, a term they say they “coined” so long ago in their work life that they even use an acronym, DOTFOTE. Once renters have done this, it becomes possible to break into their storage and turn a profit from their possessions. 

“Ken, people go missing all the time,” says Bruce. “It’s just one of those things.” So are characters closely linked to multiple disappearances who say lines like this, dialogue that sounds sinister and suspiciously invented. “The thing about Bruce was, 95 per cent of the time he came across as a relatively harmless, if annoying, person,” Ken tells us, “but there were moments when I sensed something else behind it all.” In the reader’s experience of Bruce, these proportions are flipped; it becomes apparent the author is trying to hide a large mystery about Bruce behind a smaller one, but between them, there are many midsized clues.

The book is textured with interesting ideas. Near Ken’s fairly milquetoast storage facility is the possible site of a franchise named Pharaoh’s Tomb, which does well because of its unique design – storage units that get smaller as you go from base to tip. You wonder why this hokey concept hasn’t been invented in real life; it would fit well into the dreary sections of Australia where businesses such as Ken’s often live. 

When Ken is near this construction site, between warehouses and bush, “The wind blew through the wire fence, scattering the sand about and making a faint hum which, if I closed my eyes, sounded a bit like a celestial choir.” Cohen’s gift is really his treatment of the familiar – perhaps less interesting than the human disappearances are the grim dramas he wrings from the swivels of office chairs.  CR

Transit Lounge, 224pp, $29.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "David Cohen, Disappearing Off the Face of the Earth". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CR

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