Genre: Dystopian techno-thriller
Publication Date: 23 February 2021
Available As: Paperback and e-book
Stuck in a rut, a young woman accepts a cleaning job working for an elusive urban information storage company. Well paid and working few hours, the job seems too good to be true. Soon she finds herself caught up in a web of lies and deception , party to dangerous information and a conspiracy of secrecy that could threaten her health, her mind, even her very life. How will she escape?
According to author J.E. Clarkson, The Vanishing Office is a “techno thriller”, which is a genre I can’t say that I’m too familiar with and yet the description conjures an immediate link for me to the works of Philip K. Dick. Indeed, I couldn’t help but think of some of Philip K. Dick’s short stories and science-fiction works while reading The Vanishing Office, which appears to take place in the near future, though it’s hardly a future world dominated by grandiose technology or a barren wasteland.
The Vanishing Office follows an unnamed narrator and is told entirely through her eyes; this lady, whom Clarkson later refers to as “The Cleaner”, signs up to a strangely well-paid cleaning job at Nemo & Co. in order to make ends meet and almost immediately finds that the job is a lot more than she bargained for. The office is a tightly run ship, full of odd routines and rules that ask her not to talk to anyone who works there, not to look at the work the employees produce, and not to talk to anyone outside of the office about the work that takes place there (despite the fact that she has no idea what Nemo & Co. or its employees do).
Soon, she notices some strange events happening around her; her boss, Stella, only communicates with her through text messages and sends her all sorts of weird questions and requests, she is constantly spotting odd people following or watching her, and a number of violent news reports that make her think this mysterious company may have a wider reach than she first thought.
Very quickly, the cleaning lady gets caught up in a resistance movement looking to bring Nemo & Co. down, claiming that the company (and Stella) are all about making people and events “vanish” by manipulating the media or taking much more direct action to shape both governments and society. She meets some equally shady individuals, all of whom seem to be lying to or using her in different ways, and soon ends up suffering from the effects of drugs, bizarre nightmares, and all kinds of different machinations that seek to manipulate her previously dull life.
We don’t really learn a lot about the main protagonist; she has a friend whom she is very close to and is quite an inquisitive individual but, mostly, she just likes to keep to herself and do her work so she can make some decent money. Despite this, and never learning her name, this blank slate approach actually works quite well to place the reader in the cleaner’s shoes. While I do typically struggle with first-person narratives, especially ones of a different gender to mine, I was okay with the author’s approach here as the narrator asked a lot of the same questions I had an was surprisingly adaptable considering she is (by her own admission) not the smartest or capable person.
I mentioned earlier that the book reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s work and, while I definitely haven’t read much of Dick’s sci-fi, I’ve read enough that The Vanishing Office made me think of some of his short stories. There’s nothing massively specific, like The Vanishing Office isn’t about a gritty, lived-in future populated by androids or trips to Mars or precognition but Clarkson definitely (by coincidence, design, or virtue of me not being especially well-read) seems to have captured a lot of the spirit of Dick’s work. The world presented is sparsely described and somewhat bleak and doesn’t seem too far removed from outs; eventually, the story takes a turn into more grandiose sci-fi concepts and these are introduced slowly and with a commendable amount of menace and/or mystery. If anything, these concepts are presented as almost unspectacular, as if they’re just to be expected from this work, which again reminded me of how characters and society had simply accepted lavish sci-fi technologies in Dick’s work to the point where they were just part of everyday life.
I really enjoyed these aspects of The Vanishing Office as it kept me guessing and learning alongside the narrator. The book is comprised of a great many chapters but each of these are quite short, meaning it’s pretty easy to read a few chapters a day/night or at a time and the pace moves along briskly enough. There are times, though, when the narrative slows down a bit for extended expository dialogue sequences; the mystery aspects of the book and the ongoing twists and turns in the narrative are much more appealing, in comparison, but the expository parts do lend to the overall feeling of paranoia that starts to seep into the narrator as she struggles to figure out who’s who and what’s what.
There was a lot to like about The Vanishing Office, which ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger and with our perception (and that of the narrator’s) of this world turned completely on its head, all of which I am hoping to resolve when I get around to reading the next two books. While I did notice a few grammar, punctuation, and style errors throughout the text, Clarkson kept me engaged enough to follow her narrator on this strange, tumultuous journey and definitely left me wondering what’s next for these characters and this world.
If you’re interested in checking out The Vanishing Office and learning more about J.E. Clarkson and her journey as an author, visit the links at the top of the page.