The Early Novels of Kathe Koja, Part Three: Skin



Book cover illustrationbad-brains


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: Skin

I won’t spend too much time on this novel since I’ve covered its theme of artistic obsession and destructive transcendence elsewhere.

Of these four novels, it is the purest example of that theme.

Surprisingly, for a writer and theatrical producer married to an artist, you wouldn’t expect Koja to deal so extensively with the downsides of artistic endeavor. Or, perhaps, you would. Who better to know that the muse can become a hag riding your back than an artist?

The Cipher has a bad and lazy poet as its narrator. The hero of Bad Brains regains his artistic passion as his fitful visions and violent madness increase. The ex-lovers in both end up dead or on the verge of death, the weirdness that has infected their heroes bodies nudging them to their evitable doom.

Koja eschews the fantastic for this novel. The weirdness here comes entirely out of the human mind.

But the body count is even higher in this novel, dead at the witting and unwitting hands of Bibi. Lovers Bibi and Tess survive the novel, but they’re not going to be together.

As with The Cipher, this is another novel with the characters detached from family.

This novel features another version of the Malcolm character from The Cipher. Michael is an instigator and agitator, lover of both Tess and Bibi, manipulating them to achieve his artistic visions:

His motto is “If you don’t grow, you die.”

His scorn for Tess’ good sense at not walking Bibi’s path of body mutilation:

“Afraid to go as far as you can go, as far as you have to go, to make your art? Bibi knows. Bibi’s the one who isn’t afraid.”

Of Bibi’s final transformation, Michael says:

“She’s a crazy saint. She can’t leave herself alone, she’s cutting on places that haven’t even healed yet, she keeps talking about the skin being the gate, like she has to keep cutting to get somewhere — she is so close, Tess, I mean she is really on to something here, and the last thing she needs is you stirring her up.”

Michael is a very toxic mixture of instigator, art theoretician, and manipulator. And he pays for his sins in the end.

Bibi clubs him to death.

But Bibi’s final words to Tess, “We were supposed to go together. He was supposed to take me, too.” imply Michael is a sort of cult leader for Bibi, whispering the promise of final change and transcendence in her ear.

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