Book Review: Kathe Koja's The Cipher / by Neal Auch

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Kathe Koja's 1991 debut, The Cipher, is a wonderfully mean spirited novel that concerns the misadventures of protagonist Nicholas and his kinda-sorta girlfriend Nakota when they discover a mysterious supernatural black hole -- dubbed the "Funhole" by our heroes -- in a storage closet in Nicholas' apartment complex.

The first act of this novel plays out more-or-less along standard genre lines: Nakota and Nicholas explore the Funhole (dropping animals and video cameras into its murky depths) and creepy things happen (the animals comes back re-arranged in nasty ways, the camcorder records a strange creepy video that appears different for different viewers and changes every time you view it).  Koja's voice is unique, particularly for this kind of paperback genre stuff, and these early pages do an admirable job of pulling the reader into the narrative.  

Koja wisely never explains the meaning of the Funhole.  The last few pages step a little too closely to spelling out the metaphor for my tastes, but for the most part she leaves the focal point of the novel vague enough that it can serve more than one symbolic purpose.  Probably the most obvious reading of the Funhole is that it represents evil the way Dante would have conceived it: evil as an absence of light, as the negation of good.  (This is why the denizens of the lowest circle of hell in The Inferno are frozen into inaction.)  The Funhole is described as an emptiness, an absence of light, and Nicholas' character almost perfectly embodies the evil of inaction.  Nicholas is a complete wastrel.  He is an aspiring poet who works at a video store and managed to avoid the "struggling" part of being a "struggling artist" by giving up before he had really tried to accomplish anything.  Much of the novel revolves around Nicholas' complete paralysis in the face of the drama around him.  He gave up on his artistic career without ever trying.  He never bothers to try to mend his dysfunctional relationship with Nakota, nor does he ever finds the courage to confront her and simply kick her out of his life and move on.  He gives up on a suicide attempt partway through the novel, only to return to the situation that drove him to consider suicide in the first place.  When weirdos that he hates start to congregate around his apartment and the Funhole, Nicholas again is completely unable to banish them from the premises, instead relegating himself to bitter quips.  Towards the end of the novel Nicholas locks himself with his notepad in the creepy storage closet, presumably imagining that the mysterious Funhole might inspire him to create art (as it has for several of the other wastrel artists in his orbit), but still he is completely unable to do much of anything at all.  This kind of apathy and inaction is presumably central to Koja's point here, but it also makes for a somewhat infuriating read because the narrator is just so goddamn annoying.

The second act of the novel is a bit of a tonal shift, and initially this portion of the book lead to me having some reservations about this novel.  In the second act Koja more-or-less stalls the plotline of investigating the mysteries of the Funhole and instead chooses to introduce an ever widening cast of unpleasant characters, mostly more wastrel artist types.  I think that what Koja is going for here is to try and meditate on her central theme -- the Funhole as an embodiment of evil -- by bringing various characters into its orbit and letting them interpret the metaphor for us.  It's a trick that Don Delillo also uses in his wonderful novel The Names, and it allows him to explore a deeply abstract concept (language) in a rather concrete; using a diverse cast of interesting people who all have different relationships with language to do most of the talking.  The issue here is that Koja's writing lacks the poetry of Delillo's and, unlike The Names, the characters in The Cipher are neither interesting, nor likeable.  So the second act of the novel mostly just involves shitty people being shitty to each other and bickering over trivial things.  While this creative choice certainly serves Koja's point, it also makes for a somewhat unpleasant read.  Fortunately this section of the novel never drags on long enough to derail the narrative (in my opinion at least), but it does kind of fuck with the pacing of the story.  That being said, I have to admire Koja for taking a chance here and breaking with genre conventions to pursue her vision with clarity.  

The third and final act of the novel concerns Nicholas' inevitable communion with the Funhole and is really the highlight of the book.  Here Koja revels in filling the story with menace, and the creepy imagery is fantastic.  I struggle to think of another genre book which contains so many genuinely unnerving and surreal images.  It's great stuff that makes the slog of the second act worthwhile.

Before wrapping up here, I do feel obligated to comment on Nakota, our protagonist's kinda-sorta girlfriend.  Basically every other reviewer of this book felt the need to comment on how nasty Nakota is, usually using rather gendered language to do so.  It's tempting to chalk up to misogyny this tendency to single out Nakota -- the only well developed female -- from a cast of equally deplorable characters.  To be fair, Nakota is hardly a person I'd want to spend my life with.  However, I would argue that she's probably the least shitty character in the novel.  Nakota, unlike Nicholas, has goals and drive.  Her goals aren't exactly noble, but at least she aspires to do something with her life.  Without question Nakota is the only person in this novel with the courage of her convictions.  By contrast, I have a hard time feeling sorry for Nicholas, who is very much the author of his own misery.  Nicholas could solve all his problems by just walking away.  Indeed, he does just that at one point, only to come crawling back to the source of all his woes with no obvious motivation beyond a desire to sabotage Nakota.  By the end of the novel Nicholas' entire raison d'etre is to act as an impediment to Nakota.  Nicholas comes to define his existence by being a barrier; this is the reason the door to the storage closet cannot be opened even after the lock is removed.  This brings us to a parallel interpretation of the Funhole as a metaphor for rotting heart of Nicholas and Nakota's dysfunctional love.  To my mind Nicholas' approach to the relationship, especially in the third act, seems at least as abusive as Nakota's.  That was my takeaway, at least, and I felt like I couldn't leave this review without mentioning Nakota.