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: Bad Brains.
The claustrophobic air of Koja’s first novel, The Cipher, is gone with her next. It’s something of a road trip novel — though those long hours protagonist Austen (another one of Koja’s androgynous names) spends in the car have a similar affect.
The weirdness in this novel just shows up like the Funhole in The Cipher. And there’s bodily transformation here as in that novel. But Austen himself is the main weirdness. Nicholas, in The Cipher, accidentally shoves his hand in the Funhole. Austen’s capering about after leaving a convenience store leads him to take a fall in the parking lot, a blow to the head, and the bad brains of the title results.
Austen, like Nicholas, is one of Koja’s passive males. But, whereas Nicholas, by his own admission, produces crap, Austen is a talented artist who had some measure of success. But his morbid taste in portraiture won no great favor. He gave up art, and Emily, his wife, gave up on him and moved away.
His passivity and fearful pride comes into play when he won’t tell the many doctors he sees in uncountable months of treatment and therapy that he’s started to see things:
. . . in the near comer of the room, closest to the door, came a movement, a dustdevil of fluid, liquid, mucus; silver, almost scalelike, delicate as fish skin and stretching out, elongating.
Watching as it was watched.
Not a human figure.
And he staring back as coldly, as mutely inhuman, as incapable of fear as of flight as, capriciously, it compacted, slipped back into the confines of shadowless square, the empty corner of the empty room.
Returning to work at a T-shirt shop to pay his medical bills and with a Tegretol prescription for his seizures, he reads obsessively about brain disorders and has a spectacularly unsuccessful meeting with a potential patron and hook-up partner.
So, about a third of the way through the novel, Austen goes to visit his mother Cyndee in Fort Worth. As with any encounter with living family members in these Koja novels, the results are awkward and unsatisfactory — though we learn Austen is Austen because “Bront” is “not really a name”.
But Austen does meet, in a bar, Russell. He’s a low-intensity, less malicious version of Nakota in The Cipher. When Nicholas has one of his visions in a bar, Russell recognizes what’s happening since his late father was also given to seizures and visions. As Nakota sees Nicholas as a gatekeeper to “transcursion” in that novel, Russell sees Austen as gatekeeper to Russell’s dead father and the visions he had .
The two go on a road trip of long hours, Austen taking up art again, drawing in the back seat or blacking out and undergoing visions — he almost kills Russell during one. Russell claims he’s taking him to the one doctor who helped his father.
But, like Nakota and Malcolm in The Cipher, Russell is an instigator and agitator. Or, as one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom, Mrs. Olivia, says
You’re just a little shitkicker, that’s what you are.
And what’s he’s engineered, using information Austen babbled during one of his fits, is a reunion of Emily and Austen.
Though furious at being manipulated, Emily still has a remnant of sympathy for Austen. But it doesn’t include Austen going to Russell’s doctor, actually a bruja. Dr. Quiet turns out to be a Haitian neurologist turned witch doctor. Of all these Koja novels, Quiet’s office is her single largest incident of Catholic imagery:
Another long table, this one dressed in bright red cloth like a matador’s cape, covered, Scheherazade: Good Luck Dream Books, Magic Numbers cubes, green and purple spirit candles, some burning, some not, endless tiny bottles—” Vete de Aqui,” “Money Drawing Oil”— and square packets of powder. Hologram cards of saints, Saint Sebastian, Saint Dymphna, captured in their moment of sheerest Technicolor agony, turn the card just so and see the soul’s ascension, iridescent vapor ephemeral as holy steam.
Quiet, who also thinks Russell is worthless and just wants to be Austen “without the mess”, tests Austen. After Austen gets an unprecedented reaction from a vegetative patient of Quiet’s, a man Quiet said encountered a duende, the doctor says, “Duende is like God.”
Here, in the conclusion of the novel, explanations for the weirdness get a little sketchy even in terms of mystical metaphors.
Austen embraces Quiet’s suggestion he become a healer. “Duenda” is defined as “a quality of passion and inspiration” deriving from a Spanish phrase meaning “owner of the house”. Passion and inspiration have certainly moved back into Austen’s soul. He describes it to Emily as “a force that rides you”.
But, whether it’s healing or art, she sees it as the same old excuse, the newest manifestation of his passivity, his latest obsession:
Oh God, Austen, no wonder you’re swallowing this shit. It’s your same old rap, remember?” Narrowed eyes into the wind; cruel eyes. He felt tears in his own, it was colder by the minute now, her stare was flat as the edge of a cliff. “We had this conversation ten years ago: your art’s simultaneously at fault for everything and in the driver’s seat. You’re a driven man. It’s the same old Art 101 bullshit that I thought you grew out of. Can’t you take responsibility for anything? Ever?
But Austen doesn’t listen, perhaps can’t listen at this point in the story. The novel is told solely from Austen’s point of view, so the final tenth is a flickering set of manic scenes, outbursts of violence or painting.
The novel concludes with a epigram possibly pointing more to Koja’s inspiration for the novel than its theme. It’s from Federico Garcia Lorca (a Spanish poet we’ll hear more about in the context of a Koja short story I’ll be looking at):
The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible.
The dangers of pursuing transcendence or art at all costs are here like in The Cipher. Austen isn’t just a case of obsession. The silver in Austen’s vision is
revealed at last to be far more than monster or delight, to be work itself, art’s goad, despoiler of waste, dispenser of sorrow to sorrow for a greater good.
… Silver, the color of the knife that heals.
But there’s no healing here, just the knife. Austen kills Emily in one of those blackouts before dying himself.
And it’s not Lorca who supplies the novel’s most memorable line.
It’s Koja: “Each man kills the thing he loves, for the thing he loves more.”
Yes, like The Cipher, this is love ending the worst way possible.