Anyone who reads this blog would think I'd love lyrical, literate horror that peers into its protagonists' dark hearts. That's everything The Cipher purports to be. But I do not love it. Part of that has to do with Koja's style. Although she certainly has writing chops and can pen metaphors as striking as an enraged pugilist, her paragraphs sprawl like a drunk missing the first step on a ten-story stairwell. Think Dostoevsky in a loquacious mood. In fact, just read the following single sentence describing Nicholas' job as a video-store clerk and you'll see what I mean:
The mood stayed with me all day: things at work acquired a significance: a customer's choice of video, sure, you could read runes in that any day of any week, but I saw, in this new state, deeper, encountered signs I had never before known: the slick sound of a Visa sliding across the counter; the feel of the counter itself, the way the endlessly playing monitors flickered in and out of blackness in the existential spaces between Streetgirls II and Dead Giveaway and Dog Gone Wild, the scent, even, of the money paid or the customer's fingers or the very air in the heat beneath the fake marquee lights, all of it told me things, and gifted somehow by the Funhole -- was that the source? -- I saw, if not the meaning of patterns then patterns of meaning, and for me that was enough.Tough sledding even during the best bits. More problematic, though, are the characters themselves. Yes, Koja holds up a mirror to their dark secret selves -- only there's not much there to see. Nicholas owes the entirety of his troubles to his incipient, overweening laziness and self-loathing. If Koja made the least movement toward condemning such vices, I would much mind the portrayal, but Nicholas consistently treats it like the natural state of things. The only significant step he takes in advancing the plot is attempting suicide during a bout of despair and then chickening out at the last minute. His existential ennui bleeds into almost everything. Don't expect to find any comfort in The Cipher. except through beer (overconsumption of which inevitably leads to wicked hangovers), sex (which is always devoid of anything except quickly sated animal lust), or a box of Minute Maid raisins (which gets horribly corrupted by the Funhole). I guess the crux of the matter is this: Horror should seem horrifying, but you need to feel that something worthwhile that could be lost during the story for it to become so. Such a sense is completely absent in The Cipher. Things start out badly. They grow marginally worse by the end. In between is 350 pages of mostly senseless, self-inflicted suffering. If that's all this award winner has to offer, no wonder the genre has faded.
(Picture: CC 2012 by Tom Magliery)