Cohen, David, Disappearing off the Face of the Earth. Melbourne, Victoria: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2017. RRP: $29.95, 218 pp. ISBN: 9780995359482
Warning: This review contains plot spoilers.
The ordinary really can become extraordinary as David Cohen reveals in his second novel, Disappearing Off the Face of the Earth. What starts out as a simple tale of suburban working life in Springwood, Brisbane, soon evolves into a compelling mystery of human disappearance and mental deterioration.
The novel centres around the character of Ken Guy, a typical, working-class man, who owns and runs Hideaway Self-Storage with the help of his assistant Bruce. Narrated by Ken, the story delves into his working world, and the slow decline of his business, as clients slowly begin to ‘disappear off the face of the earth’, defaulting on their rent and leaving behind their stored possessions. However, with these disappearances comes a silver lining, with the duo now being able to legally sell the abandoned items and make a nice supplement to their income, which just might save the business from its total demise.
Now, if there’s one thing this novel is not, it’s a straightforward, easy read, and I mean this in the best way possible. Through the use of a first-person narrator, Cohen creates a powerful filter for the events that take place, expertly crafting an enthralling novel that requires constant reader engagement.
The story is told through the first person perspective of the main protagonist, Ken, who therefore becomes the reader’s primary point of contact with the narrative world. In the beginning of the novel, the reader is not alerted to anything that would generate skepticism or create doubt towards Ken’s testimony, as he is framed as an ordinary guy in all regards. As the story progresses, though, Cohen places subtle clues in the everyday interactions of the characters, that hint at the possible unreliability of Ken as the novel’s narrator.
Increasingly, Ken’s memory begins to be questioned by other characters as he forgets important conversations and events. Whilst at first brushing things off as forgetfulness, Ken soon begins to question himself:
‘“Why don’t I remember any of this?”
Bruce smiled. “I’m afraid I can’t answer that one either, Ken. But you have been having some memory issues of late. You might want to look into that.”
I swiveled in the chair, trying hard to recall the event of that day. But my brain, that stubborn prick, refused to cooperate.’ (98)
The novel is strewn with ambiguity, leaving the reader somewhat off balance in regards to what’s real and what’s not. Characters question the narrator, the narrator questions himself, and the reader, in turn, has to question everything.
Whilst these factors indicate that something may be off kilter in the mind of the narrator, it isn’t until the closing chapters of the book that the extent of this is revealed. Triggered by flickering fluorescent lights, Ken descends into a manic argument with a voice in his head, and comes to the realisation that he has imagined the entire last part of his journey in some kind of hallucinatory vision. In the final sentences of the story, the full extent of Ken’s unhinged mind is revealed. In a scene where Bruce is supposed to be walking behind him, Cohen writes, ‘So I sat myself down on the ground not far from the side of the highway. And for the time being that’s where I would remain: a solitary figure in the landscape, thinking things over’” (218). In identifying Ken as a ‘solitary figure in the landscape’, Cohen thus reveals the illusory nature of the character of Bruce, existing only in the mind of Ken, and finally exposing the magnitude of Ken’s mental deterioration. With the full instability and unreliability of the protagonist and narrator revealed, the reader is forced to retrospectively look back across the text and review the story. Only now the significance of the subtle clues Cohen littered throughout the narrative comes to light.
One such clue is Cohen’s use of symbolism to reflect the mental deterioration of the main character. On top of the issues of memory lapses and lost time experienced by Ken, his extreme aversion to fluorescent lights also hints at some kind of mental disturbance. At multiple intervals throughout the novel the reader observes Ken’s visceral response to flickering fluorescent bulbs, which cause him excruciating headaches that leave him running from the area into the relief of darkness. The flickering lights therefore are revealed to be symbolic of Ken’s ever declining mental state throughout the narrative, and as his reactions intensify so his mental health declines.
Cohen’s choice of language throughout the novel works to hide this dark theme of mental deterioration. Cohen writes his characters with a comedic flair and colloquial tone, Ken in particular: ‘I climbed down off the ladder; that fucker of a fluoro tube remained where it was for the time being’ (147). The use of dark and cynical humor here and throughout the text work to hide the deeper themes within the narrative. By writing Ken’s dialogue as humorously contemptuous, Cohen casts a veil over the grimmer issues lurking just below the surface of the text and, in doing so, it is only at the end of the novel, when Ken’s mental state reaches a breaking point, that the reader recognises the connection between the flickering lights and Ken’s flickering mental stability.
Disappearing Off the Face of the Earth is a cleverly crafted mystery that places the reader unknowingly side-by-side a protagonist whose rapidly declining mental state creates a story clouded with confusion, uncertainty and suspicion. Cohen’s novel is both an entertaining read and an in-depth insight into the dark side of mental health and its effects on perception, personal relationships and our sense of identity and purpose.
Ali MacGregor graduated from Curtin University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in both Literary and Cultural Studies, and Screen Arts. She has previously completed internships at both Margaret River Press and Westerly Magazine, and is now working on establishing her career in the publishing industry.