Crime Scene: DAVID COHEN Disappearing off the Face of the Earth. Reviewed by Robin Elizabeth
David Cohen masterfully captures a repellent main character in this comic mystery novel.
David Cohen’s new novel has been described as ‘a warped comedy with a body count’ by Brisbane writer Nick Earls. It is set in Brisbane and is packed with Australian humour and content. The laid-back nature of the stereotypical Aussie is the basis of the story and generates most of the action.
The book is written from the perspective of Ken Guy, an unsuccessful self-storage entrepreneur who is sexist, fat-phobic, and whose sense of entitlement is through the roof. The story opens with Ken watching — and judging — his employee, Bruce, over CCTV:
‘Bruce,’ I said to the screen, ‘what the fuck are you doing?’
Bruce had worked for me for nearly five years. He was a weird prick but I’d come to accept his idiosyncrasies. Why he’d be straightening the trolleys at one o’clock on a Thursday morning was a mystery I preferred not to enquire into too deeply. The facility allowed twenty-four-hour access — each tenant had their own security code, enabling them to get to their storage unit whenever they wanted — and there was certainly no reason why Bruce, an employee, couldn’t come in and do work after office hours. If he was such a sad loser that he had nothing better to do with his time, that was his business, I wasn’t interested in Bruce’s personal life — assuming he had one.
Ken moves from judging his employee to being pleased to discover that one of his tenants has disappeared off the face of the earth and he’ll get to sell off the valuable storage items left behind for profit. Ken isn’t exactly a nice guy; in fact he’s the kind of guy who calls himself a ‘nice guy’ then complains that ‘bitches’ don’t respect him:
Ellen Kruger and I had been seeing each other for nearly five months. But then, out of the blue, just when I thought things were getting serious she cut off all contact and was now avoiding me altogether. I knew she had various emotional issues of her own to deal with, but still I was baffled by this abrupt change of heart, and she refused to explain. She wouldn’t even answer my phone calls.
It was time to drive to her house for a confrontation.
When Ellen cuts off contact with Ken he feels entitled to her attention and so refuses to accept the boundaries she has set. He goes to her home despite knowing perfectly well that he is not welcome there, and then is surprised when Ellen threatens to call the police if he does not leave. Even still he stands on her doorstep after she has closed the door and switched off the lights. Ken has little respect for the boundaries of others,
And to top it all off Ken is fat-phobic. He is constantly noticing people’s weight in excruciating detail and finding them lacking because of it. Ken doesn’t simply think of fat as a descriptor, he uses it to denote bad, lonely, inferior:
‘To some extent,’ he said, scratching his fat belly which his KISS T-shirt could no longer conceal. Then he struck his hand right down the front of his shorts, rearranging his genitals with the nonchalance you must expect of a man who spends his life alone in front of a computer.
Despite all of these obvious character faults, Ken thinks he’s someone to be envied. He is the embodiment of the concept of white male entitlement. In relation to a previous boss Ken thinks, ‘I got the impression that he, like several previous bosses, resented my intelligence.’
He follows this up with raging against being disciplined by his boss. There is no doubt that Ken was completely in the wrong and that he was spoken to fairly mildly but he still feels that he is above being called to account for his actions:
The bastard could at least have reprimanded me in private instead of making me look like a dick in front of Caitlin. Had she been ugly, or even average looking, it wouldn’t have been quite so bad but she was at least an eight and a half.
Given that the book is written in the first person from Ken’s perspective it can at times feel claustrophobic being forced to view the world through his lens. David Cohen is clearly an exceptional writer, as he captures this revolting character so perfectly that I found myself yelling at the book things like, ‘That is sexist and absurd’, and literally rolling my eyes as I read about how brilliant Ken felt he was in comparison to past bosses, his employee, and pretty much all women, who were judged by how Ken’s underpants region responded to them.
Beyond the brilliant characterisation, Cohen creates an air of mystery throughout the novel. From the disappearance of the very first customer the reader begins questioning the nature of the book. Is it a mystery where we need to find the disappearing customers by tracing their belongings? Or, since every tenant has access to Ken’s storage centre, is it a whodunnit with a mystery killer? Or is the killer someone closer to home, given that Bruce has been making late night visits? And with all the references to brain tumours and dementia, could Disappearing Off the Face of the Earth essentially be Fight Club, but bogan, and on a smaller scale?
The surprise twist is foreshadowed repeatedly, but it isn’t really a problem as the suspense is more to do with when the penny will drop rather than which way it will land. And the final scene can still be open to interpretation, although it is fairly evident what it is suggesting from all the clues heavily dropped throughout the novel.
David Cohen captures the repellent main character masterfully in this novel. It is full of vivid descriptions and laugh-out-loud moments that readers will enjoy if they can stand the discomfiture of sitting inside Ken Guy’s head for 224 pages.
David Cohen Disappearing off the Face of the Earth Transit Lounge 2017 PB 224pp $29.99
Robin Elizabeth is the author of Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal Depression Sucks and blogs at http://riedstrap.wordpress.com about her love of Australian literature, depression, and whatever tickles her fancy bone.
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