Book cover illustration
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: Kink
Yes, Kink is about a menage a trois, a sexual threesome. But don’t expect something out of Penthouse Letters. While there is some sex, it’s not particularly graphic or that prevalent. This isn’t as erotic as some of Koja’s short fiction. And it’s a psychologically plausible explication about the dangers of such a setup because, as hairdresser Po, one of Koja’s dark-skinned dispensers of wisdom, says, “three’s an unstable number”.
Like all these novels, there’s a pair of lovers or ex-lovers at the heart. Here it’s Sophie and Jess, another androgynously named character and our narrator. They’re not artists, per se. But, like all the major characters in these four Koja novels, they are involved in the local art scene.
And they have an artistic sensibility. Sophie went to art school to be a photographer. Jess studied writing. Neither are really pursuing their art. Both exhibit the usual disdain of Koja’s central characters for formal training and theory. Sophie scorns “art history shit”, and Jess claims advanced writing classes killed creation and had “a party line to toe”.
Yet, they have a conceit, a way, a pretentious way, about looking at the world. It’s a secret shared and created only by them:
From then on it was something we knew we were doing, no more than what had gone before yet understood now, felt as conscious play; like a cipher decoded, vision once changed is changed forever, you could see nothing else, make magic of anything and in a way we did: our crummy jobs— both temps at that time, pre-AmBiAnce— and the hideous flat and the neighbors too loud, fighting or fucking above and through the jumble of their TVs and music, strange blend of sounds to us in our bed as we made stories around them, about them, made fun of the stories we made because everything was fair game, everything there to be mocked or scrambled, turned around on itself and inside out: nothing sacred but the jest because the joke was a joke on itself, on us too even as we made it: we knew about irony
It’s a compensation for lack of creation in their first artistic avocations, a sophistic elevation of the mundane and quotidian to a creative act.
When they first encounter Lena, the woman that many men and women desire, the woman that will become their lover and engineer the dissolution of their relationship and leave them both alone, she flatters them succinctly with her description of their relationship:
“Like you’re not just living, just like everyone else, you’re making your life, shaping it like, like art, by the way you see things, the way you are. See?”
This novel actually refers much more to the family and pasts of its central characters than Koja’s earlier novels. (Again, I didn’t read Koja’s Strange Angels, the novel before this.)
Plotwise, the novel is much different than the other three. After their devastating dalliance with Lena, Jess begins investigating her relationships with others in the local art world. It’s rather reminiscent of a film noir plot where the hero delves into the past of the woman who did him wrong.
But, if the plot is different, the novel in the ends swings around in the end to be sort of a realistic takeoff on Koja’s first novel, The Cipher. Lena is a sort of Funhole (insert sexual joke of choice). Like the Funhole, she is a negative force.
The penultimate scene has Jess confronting Lena. She offers an explanation of her actions:
“But you two, you and Sophie— you know I envied you, I don’t believe in envy but I envied you, because you had everything. All those stories you told me, and Sophie sniveling about her family, she always had a family, she had you. And you had her.” Mockery, the faintest sneer. “You don’t even know what it means to be alone, you were never alone, either of you, so close but it wasn’t enough: you wanted more, you wanted to be Siamese twins and when you couldn’t be twins you decided to be triplets but that wasn’t enough either. So now you’re split in half and you’re miserable and I’m glad you’re miserable; I’m glad.
“Because you deserve it, both of you. You’re so greedy you make me sick.”
So, with Sophie and Jess, we have another example of the greedy, destructive quest for transcendence, here personal and sexual transcendence, present in Koja’s other earlier novels.
All the lovers Lena sought out, the lovers she left ruined or wiser, were greedy and egotistical:
“They look different and they dress different and they fuck different, but in the end they’re all the same person and they all want the same thing.” . . .
“What,” I said, “what do they want?”
She made me wait for it: then: “Just more. More of what they already have.”
(That repudiation of individuality, that we are not as unique as we think, is, incidentally a feature of many Alfred Bester stories.)
But Jess has a parting shot for Lena that shows she is a Funhole of sort, truly unconnected to normal human life at a fundamental level:
“No,” I said, “I’ll leave you alone. All alone, that’s what you want, right? More of what you already have?”
This novel departs from Koja’s other early novels in another way too.
Sophie and Jess get back together in the end. They are one of those few left wiser for knowing Lena. They have learned when enough is enough.
In future postings, I’ll be looking at Koja’s short fiction.