The Cipher

Kathe Koja
The Cipher Cover

The Cipher


Just about everyone has known at least one guy who always hooked up with crazy girlfriends. In that same vein, who hasn't known girls whose boyfriends were invariably losers. Nicholas and Nakota, the central characters in The Cipher, are made for each other. Both are college-educated underachievers. Nicholas works in a video store and only writes poetry when he is drunk, which is often. Nakota, also known as Shrike and whose real name is something like Diane, is manipulative and just downright mean. She tends bar at Club 22, an establishment for full-time alcoholics, and hangs out with what sound like remarkably untalented artists. Nicholas has to admit he probably loves her. She may love him. Their general fucked-upness is what they have in common. That, and The Funhole.

On the second floor of Nicholas's dingy apartment building there is a storage room containing a hole that seems to open into another dimension -- or something. The Cipher accepts the Funhole on its own terms, because Nicholas and Nakota do as well. Nicholas narrates the novel, and so the possibility that all this is some manifestation of their febrile grip on reality will cross the reader's mind. Who finds a hole to another dimension in a storage closet and doesn't think it might be of some serious scientific interest and not just their personal plaything? They are like kids, grown up, drunk kids who live in squalid circumstances, but kids who think the hole in the backyard might go to China.

Bad things happen to what goes into the hole. Their is some unpleasantness with a pickle jar full of insects and later a mouse. A human hand borrowed from a med student crawls back up the rope they've hung it from. A camcorder -- this was written in 1991 -- brings back a deeply disturbing video that can never be described in detail because no two people see the same thing twice. Then Nicholas's own right arm happens to go full length into the hole. It is scary but kind of nice down there, and he soon has a little hole of his own on his palm.

All this sounds ridiculous and it is, but Koja makes it work. Her success is the creation of Nicholas as a narrator who is both mesmerized observer of the transformations around him and, and he grows to admit, their catalyst. Others are brought into the "secret." Nakota rounds up forces to antagonize and work against NIcholas. She is jealous of his relationship with the Funhole. I wanted to strangle just about every character in the book, but since that's a feeling I shared with Nicholas it kept the proceedings bearable.

The Cipher is a peculiar nightmare of a book. It creates its own claustrophobic world so convincingly that it comes as a shock when you learn that some characters have to leave for work or visit their mothers. It all comes down to Nicholas and the Funhole, an aperture both inviting and repulsive. One day it may smell like freshly baked bread, The next day it smells like a corpse.