The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part One: The Cipher

Book cover illustrationbad-brainsskinkink

The Cipher, Kathe Koja, 1991, 2012.

Bad Brains, Kathe Koja, 1992.

Skin, Kathe Koja, 1993.

Kink, Kathe Koja, 1996.

Essay: The Early Novels of Kathe Koja: The Cipher.

Like the Ambrose Bierce reading project of a couple of years ago, I’ve spent the past four months reading Kathe Koja on and off.

Like the Bierce project, I did it in preparation of this year’s local Arcana convention. Alas, things came up, and I’m not able to attend.

Koja’s name has been lurking in mind since reading her story “The Neglected Garden” (1991) in its original magazine appearance. From her appearance on the Lovecraft ezine podcast, she seems like a fun person, and her guest appearance at Arcana was finally a motive to seek out some of her short fiction, which I’ll be looking at in a future posting, and her early novels.

The order I read them, Skin, The Cipher, Bad Brains, and Kink, was not their order of publication, and I skipped Strange Angels, so keep that in mind.

Koja is, at least in these novels, one of those literary writers who tends to write variations on the same story. Her sentences are unobtrusively long but unclotted. No Henry James-like piling of subordinate clause on subordinate clause or long descriptions. Certain quirks, like the words “rebus” and “freshet”, are present, and, like most such writers, it’s not always a good idea to read one of her novels right after another. The palette can get a bit sated on her style.

These novels often, if not always, have these elements: passive male characters, non-white characters that dispense succinct wisdom, an alienation from family, a character who delights in agitating others, a greedy and destructive quest for transcendence, androgynous names, artists living in economic if not creative squalor, ending epigraphs that present the theme, Catholic imagery and allusions, and a skepticism of art theories.

Of the four, only Koja’s first two novels, The Cipher and Bad Brains, have fantastic elements.

The Funhole, a mysterious violation of space, a hole in the floor in the basement of a squalid apartment building, is at the heart of The Cipher.

Koja gets right to the weirdness on the second page:

Black. Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you looked at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some—process. Rabbithole, some strange motherfucking wonderland, you bet. Get somebody named Alice, tie a string to her…. We’d discussed it all, would discuss it again, probably tonight, and Nakota would sit as she always did, straight-backed as a priestess, me getting ripped and ripping into poetry, writing shit that was worse than unreadable in the morning, when I would wake—more properly afternoon, and she long gone, off to her job, unsmiling barmaid at Club 22 and me late again for the video store. She might not come again for days, or a day, one day maybe never. I knew: friends, yeah, but it was the Funhole she wanted. You can know something and never think about it, if you’re any good at it. Me, now, I’ve been avoiding so much for so long that the real trick becomes thinking straight.
After discovering it, our passive narrator, sometime poet Nicholas, and his ex-girlfriend Nakota start performing experiments. They lower insects, a mouse, and a severed hand into it, and all are transformed. When Nicholas’ hand accidentally is plunged in, it is also changed. Nicholas can levitate and melt iron with his bare hands in the presence of the Funhole.

Nakota becomes obsessed with the Funhole, repeatedly watches a recording, which changes over time, made by putting a video recorder in the Funhole. She yearns for the transcendence, the possibility of “transcursion … a passage beyond limits; extraordinary deviation” it offers. And Nicholas, still in love with the manipulative and uncaring Nakota, isn’t about to let her plunge into it.

Eventually a group of people starts to hang about Nicholas’ apartment to catch the spectacle of the Funhole including Malcolm, a player in the local art scene from which so many of the characters come from or drift about. Like Nakota, he is one of Koja’s instigators and agitators though even more stupid and dangerous than Nakota who seeks just her own ends. She moves back in with Nicholas and fervently couples with him after episodes of escalating Funhole strangeness. She is furious at Nicholas thwarting her desires to enter the Funhole.

Nakota sneers that Nicholas has been gifted with an “avenue to change” but

“In fact you’re not even worthy of what’s happening to you. Saints and idiots, angels and children.”

Nicholas has realized the Funhole is a “negativity, an absence, a lack”. His passivity infuriates Nakota. His “lackadaisical acquiescence to conditions she was convinced could and must be altered” enrages her.

Randy, tow truck driver and metal sculptor drawn into the turmoil about the Funhole, exhibits a skepticism of art theory: “I always hated art class in school, bunch of shit.” His girlfriend, Vanese, is one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom when she warns Nicholas away from his plan to stay beside the Funhole and prevent anyone from entering it. She is described as a kind sister in every way different than Nakota possessor of “that special selfishness that can barely recognize the existence of others.”

The novel is claustrophobic, mostly set in Nicholas’ apartment building, and goes on a bit too long for my taste though the opening, with those Funhole experiments, is quite effective. In terms of sheer menace and weirdness, it surpasses Koja’s Bad Brains. Already, with this first novel, she shows a command of observation, characterization, and dialogue.

Malcolm and Nakota and followers end up trying to break through into the storage room where Nicholas has barricaded himself to protect that Funhole.

The novel ends with Nakota finally getting through that barricade, and Nicholas kills her to prevent her going through the Funhole.

The novel, like all these Koja novels are, is a story of love gone horribly wrong. Cradling her mutilated body, Nicholas’ last words to Nakota are

“I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Then you fucked up.”

And, as all these novels are, this is a tale on the dangers of obsession, particularly the drive toward transcendence. And, like all these novels, it is on the dangers of the head not mastering the heart.

Nicholas, early in the novel, explains his unreciprocated love of the unworthy Nakota:

Because in the end we are what we are, we want what we want, whether we know it or not. Whether we care to resist or not, or whether in the end it’s worth resistance after all.

Nakota and Nicholas are of a type we will see in other Koja novels. Isolated from family (Vanese is described as a kind sister) with their hearts locked in decaying orbits towards an apocalyptic crash.

Koja’s concluding epigraph, the thematic statement, is from Ben Hecht — an author mostly forgotten today except for his link to Charles Fort though Nakota is a fan: “Love is like a hole in the heart.”

Nicholas realizes, as the novel fades out to his uncertain end, what the Funhole is:

… what if it is me? What if somehow I’m crawling blind and headfirst into my own sick heart, the void made manifest and disguised as hellhole, to roil in the aching stink of my own emptiness forever?


7 thoughts on “The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part One: The Cipher

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.