Stranded in the Jungle--4

The Cipher

WOUND. They call it, sardonically, the Funhole. It's a void, a black hole, a mysterious rent in the texture of space. "Not darkness, not the absence of light but living black. Maybe a foot in diameter, maybe a little more. Pure black and the sense of pulsation... the sense of something not living but alive, not even something but some--process." This non-place, this obscene breach in the order of being, is the focus of Kathe Koja's 1991 horror novel, The Cipher. The Funhole forces itself on your attention, yet it resists definition. Its boundaries are uncertain, its depths beyond measure. It emits funky odors, warm, rich, and putrid, like compost, or overripe fruit on the verge of going rotten. If you throw things into it, they re-emerge, mutated into strange, overwrought forms. All the book's characters become fascinated with the Funhole. They are drawn to it like human moths to a dark flame. They want to approach it, question it, draw from it all its power. One day, somebody dangles a video camera inside. The resulting tape shows a barely discernible figure, or rather "no figure at all but the absence of one." This non-figure grins "a vast black grin" with its "black asshole-mouth," and writhes in an "ecstatic prance of self-evisceration." This vision is as alluring as it is terrifying. It entices its viewers out of themselves, and into--they don't know what. They watch the tape over and over again. Once they've felt the Funhole's morbid attraction, there's no turning back. Nicholas Wiener, the novel's narrator, has the fever worse than anybody. He despises the New Age fanatics and art world poseurs who cluster about the Funhole. But the person he really hates the most is himself. Maybe that's why he alone becomes the Funhole's chosen instrument. Its darkness seems to embody all his mixed longings and repulsions. Self-loathing can get you pretty far. The Funhole calls to Nicholas at night, with beckoning gestures and words of love. It woos him with a music that only he can hear. Its sounds are "maddeningly beautiful, and faint as an insect choir, like standing in the dark and glimpsing--the barest peripheral, an image behind your eyelids--the passing of your one desire, close enough to nuzzle if you could only fix its motion, see it all the way." Who could resist such an ineffable seduction? The Funhole reaches out to Nicholas, while remaining just beyond his grasp. It slyly insinuates itself within his very flesh. A hole opens in his right hand. It's a wound in the middle of the palm that never closes or heals. It doesn't exactly bleed, but a warm, thick, sticky fluid seeps out of it continually. The hand takes on a life and will of its own. He wakes up, for instance, to see it "twitching slowly and violently... without producing any sort of feeling in [his] flesh." Gradually the hole grows larger, transforming Nicholas from within. He nourishes it, unwittingly, as a host does its parasite. Its alien presence burrows into him, ever more deeply. That's all that really happens in the whole course of the book. The process unfolds with an excruciating, inhuman slowness. Its rhythm is well conveyed by Koja's twisted mutant prose, heavy and obsessive, always turning back upon itself. The book reads as if traditional pulp writing had been run through a blender--or through the Funhole--to be disassembled and genetically recombined. By the end of the novel, Nicholas is one enormous wound. His humanity has almost totally drained away. He's a body in the throes of self-evisceration, an avid, gaping cunt-asshole-mouth. He's suspended in the middle of a process that can never end. Nothing will ever be enough to fill up this hole. The others all await the great change, the "transcursion," that they imagine contact with the Funhole will bring. They expect to discover deep truths, or at least to be entertained. But Nicholas doesn't find anything fun or useful in the Funhole: not wisdom, not pleasure, not power or prestige. For "how do you get an answer from a process? And how delude yourself to trust it, if you got one?" Meaning is only created through negotiation and exchange. But Nicholas knows that you can't trade or parley with the Funhole. There's no common measure between it and yourself. You can only give yourself over to it, wholly and without return. His wound is something that Nicholas can never hope to master, but only (at best) endure. His flesh must passively suffer what his mind is unable to grasp. He has indeed rid himself of the selfhood that he so hated. But he finds no solace, no liberation, in this process. He is stranded, interminably, on the brink of his own dissolution. Whatever he does, he will never be able to take that final step. He will "never stop thinking," though he has nothing left to think about. He's condemned "to roil in the aching stink of [his] own emptiness forever."

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