The Year's Work in Fiction
2007-2008: Fear of Tennis
53, 2008, pg. 54
Fear of Tennis
by David Cohen,
a Perth-born writer, mainly of short stories, now living in Melbourne,
was another standout Australian first novel of 2007-08. It is not often
one comes across a comic debut novel - certainly not such an
accomplished one. ‘It wouldn’t be a bad thing if Fear of Tennis
became a cult-book: like Seinfeld, it makes Fabergé mountains
out of everyday molehills,’ the reviewer Owen Richardson wrote of
it in the Melbourne Age
While not quite, like Seinfeld, ‘about nothing,’
Cohen’s novel is indeed quirky and offbeat with a dry wit and an
acute eye for some of the absurdities of contemporary urban life. Its
hero, Mike Planner, is a nerdy, obsessive-compulsive type who works as
a courtroom sound-recordist in present-day Perth. He is also a man who
has a fixation with hygiene and bathrooms, public and private:
‘The sight of a well-designed, well-maintained public toilet
always fills me with pleasure.’ But Mike’s closeted
existence is changed in unexpected ways after he happens to see his
best mate from school, now a yuppie banker and tennis addict, on a bus.
The plot resolves itself in the age-old comic tradition of a
satisfying, ‘feel-good’ ending with all loose ends tied. I
thoroughly enjoyed this novel: for its intelligence, its understated
humour, its engaging central character, and, not least, its sure grasp
of the conventions of the difficult craft of comic writing. Once again,
this author is a new writing talent worth watching.
Fear of Tennis
No. 191, Winter 2008, pg. 86
A dry-humoured novel featuring the obsessive-compulsive Mike Planner
who works as a courtroom sound-recorder and practises his smiles in the
toilet mirror. The novel begins when Planner sees an old school friend,
Jason Blunt, on a bus and feels that he owes him for an incident in
their childhood where the latter took the blame for something that the
former did (how’s that for avoiding spoilers?). Unaware of
Blunt, caught in his own obsession with tennis, invites Planner to join
him and his coach Gary, an ex-pro player who never plays but who
instead takes photos of Blunt playing.
I found Fear of Tennis
little strained by end of two hundred pages, as Planner’s
obsessive-compulsive nature, in combination with tennis itself, was not
exactly to my taste. I would have liked a little more time devoted to
Fiona, the student of religion on whom Planner develops a crush after
she steals his cup - but I suspect I would have gone for anything that
would have taken.me away from the tennis. Regardless, Cohen’s
writing is tight, detailed and the dialogue rarely skips a beat.
Parody: Fear of Tennis
Australian Book Review
No. 299, March 2008
Fear of Tennis
Cohen’s quirky and absurd first novel. It features the
Mike Planner, whose interests include court reporting and bathrooms.
When he bumps into Jason Bunt, his best friend from high school, Mike
recalls how they fell out.
At the centre of the story is a bizarre struggle towards redemption;
Mike wants to atone for a past sin and believes that Jason’s
series of ‘challenges’ are a way to do just that.
somewhat perplexingly, Mike, who has never been interested in sport,
begins to swim and play tennis, frequenting the gym with increasing
Mike is not the only one whose obsessions litter Fear of Tennis
Jason, who holds his racquet even when he is at rest, spends evenings
watching videos of his tennis practice. Halfway through, the book picks
up pace. We meet Gary, Jason’s tennis coach, who tries to
Jason’s tantrums with such aphorisms as ‘never
the chemistry of anger’. While maintaining this rekindled
friendship with Jason, and constantly training, Mike is holding down
his job, and trying to find ways to woo a female colleague, who is
studying the Old Testament.
The humour derives from Mike’s assumptions and from his
to communicate them to people. The situation is interesting enough,
highlighting as it does the possible lengths that people can go to for
redemption; but the prose, monotonous to reflect the orderliness of
Mike’s life, makes this a dull read. The book needed a good
and proofreading; this would not be worth mentioning if its absence
wasn’t so distracting. By far the best thing about the novel
Gary; he is the caricature of the sports-crazed, adrenalin-fuelled
trainer who quotes from the Tao Te Ching and, like Jason,
see humour in anything.
Parody: Fear of Tennis
29 September 2007
Perth-born, Melbourne-based David Cohen’s first novel is a
minimalist parody of dramas of guilt and atonement. Mike and Jason are
high-school best-friends; one day Jas takes the rap for an act of
foolishness on Mike’s part involving a toy light-house. After
Jason is expelled they have little to do with each other until in adult
life they run into each other on the bus: Mike is a perfectionist court
reporter and Jason a corporate thug.
It’s the comedy of syndromes: Mike is as obsessed with the
cleanliness and mod cons of public toilets as Jason is with tennis,
while Mike’s workmate Fiona, whom he is trying to date, is
heavily into the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) - she fills
Mike in on the trials of Abraham, a useful myth for his particular
circumstance. Mike operates by second-guessing and mind-reading, and
the plot and the incidental humour get mileage out of Mike’s
inability to deal with anyone directly.
The recessive absurdism has its appeal, and it wouldn’t be a
bad thing if Fear of
became a cult book: like Seinfeld, it makes Fabergé
out of everyday molehills. At the same time, the deliberate flatness of
the writing threatens to make the whole thing too dry -
the voice of pedantry and so is Cohen’s - at least until the
accumulating ridiculousness and the elegance of the construction draw
as a Book of the Year (2007)
West Australian writer David
Cohen offered a sprightly, original novel titled Fear of
(Black Pepper), in which a mild-mannered courtroom sound recordist and
sports-hater gets enmeshed in high-tech athleticism as an act of
atonement for a wrong he committed a dozen years before.
Les Murray, The Age, 8 December
and The West Australian
David Cohen’s Fear
(Melbourne, Black Pepper) stood out among the novels I read. A
sports-hating courtroom recordist enmeshes himself in high-tech
athleticism to atone for an old wrong, and the rabbinical underpinnings
of the original tale are discreetly conveyed.
Les Murray, the Times Literary Supplement, 1
3 September 2007, Readings Books & Music Carlton
It’s my pleasure to be here tonight... I gave Kevin the
because he called me just as I was in the middle of my delicate
negotiations with the ALP over the seat of Williamstown. So Kevin
apologies for my evasive, strange behavior... with that sort of
evasiveness perhaps I would have made a good politician.
But that’s all water under the bridge... I’m here
comfortable with my decision to continue forging my own literary
career... At least I can continue sleeping at night.
Fear of Tennis
took me away
from the circus that was my life a few weeks ago. Sport and humour...
what a wonderful combination. There should be more of it. I combined
the two in my book The
and David has done the same here... very
There is so much humour in the way we as a nation embrace sport.
I’ll stick my hand up here and say I lose sleep over my footy
team. I spend most of my waking (and sleeping) life worrying about the
forward set up at the Adelaide Crows... but I grew up with this
obsession... the two protagonists in Fear of Tennis
didn’t. In fact, they loathed swimming so much they developed
cunning plan to avoid their swimming class week in, week out.
And at one point Jason Bunt declares: ‘only the true
dickheads of this world play tennis.’
Well he becomes one of them... and his old school friend, Mike Planner,
gets involved in sport for other reasons... but I won’t give
As the back cover says this is a novel about the impossibility of
By page four I’d developed a minor crush on the main
Mike Planner who we learn had only five ties… for the five
of the week…
‘I wore them in the same sequence, week in, week out. If by
chance I forgot which day it was, I could always check my
I grew more enamoured with him when he told us he went through 3,960
two-ply tissues in a year, 2,250 cups of coffee and he was up to case
number 877 as a court reporter... one of the best at Precision Court
There’s something very alluring about a man who shows that
of attention to detail... well, as someone who carries around a whole
lot of useless information in my head... I think so anyway.
Mike also has a fixation with restrooms where he performs his smile and
chest-tapping routine to relax... which I’ve since tried
So you get the picture... he’s a lovable, nerdy sort of guy.
At the heart of Fear
is Mike’s relationship with his best friend from high school,
Jason Bunt. They lose touch after a lighthouse-related disaster in year
ten and meet up again eleven years later.
And, as I mentioned before, Jason has changed... he’s become
a sports lover.
And we all know what they’re like... I went out with a man
first came to Melbourne who said he wanted to charge ten dollars for
people to come over and watch me watching the footy. We’re a
There’s a bit of Jason Bunt in every sports lover... perhaps
minus the history of assault, motivational books and IKEA furniture.
There are so many comical references to sport in this book which had me
laughing aloud in bed.
When Mike and Jason meet up as adults for the first time to have a
coffee... Jason turns up holding his tennis racquet…because
there’s a connection between how you carry your racquet and
you carry yourself mentally during a match... so Jason practiced
holding his racquet at every opportunity.
And talking about his coach, Gary, he says to Mike...
‘For the first two weeks, we didn’t even get onto
court. All we did was visualise the shots I want to play. He wants me
to program every shot into my muscle memory –
he calls it – so we just visualised the shots.’
The coach, Gary had so many Gary-isms. Here’s just a taste of
his wisdom –
‘I can’t stress to you enough that the physical
racquet is an outward manifestation of the mental racquet.’
‘You must become the shot.’
‘Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep
sharpening your knife and it will blunt.’
And he’s always telling Jason to ‘Release, review
and re-set’... as a way of overcoming his anger issues.
Gary is totally out of control... the endearing qualities of Mike are
more than offset by Gary’s duplicity.
The reader is with Mike every step of the way... barracking
and louder as his journey unfolds, despite our main
delusional tendencies. There are tasty parallels to the story of
Abraham in the bible and there’s a hint of romance, which
I’m always searching for (in books and life).
Congratulations on your first book David. Like me, I see
writing your second novel (I trust it’s progressing faster
Ladies and gentlemen please join me in a toast... to David Cohen
and Fear of