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Bad Brains

Kathe Koja

Abyss Dell

Mass Market Paperback Original

ISBN 0-440-21114-X

367 pages; $4.95

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2001




04-29-02, 10-30-02

"Bad Brains" looks like a horror novel. It's been published as a part of Dell's new "Abyss" line of horror paperbacks. And it is often horrifying. In spite of all this, it has more in common with Kafka and Camus than with Stephen King. Kathe Koja's second novel is, for the most part, a finely wrought piece of fiction detailing the mental disintegration of Austen Bandy, a lazy, neurotic artist who suffers seizures and hallucinations after striking his head in a convenience store parking lot.

Like last year's "The Cipher", "Bad Brains" is a strikingly different novel, written in an entirely original style. Every sight, sound and sensation is filtered through flowing, stream-of-consciousness prose-poetry. Only occasionally does it seem as if Koja is treading the thin line between enough and too much just as her character is treading the thin line between madness and sanity. To her credit, she never falls down. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Austen.

The opening of the novel, in which Austen's pointless accident, the ensuing seizures and surreal hallucinations are described, is one of the most physically frightening pieces of fiction I've ever read. No, there are no visions of blood-drenched gore, just the terrifying litany of diagnosis and prescription, disconnection and dislocation. Koja hot-wires her character's descent directly to the readers' perceptions with her punk-poet writing. "And he, the sense of himself, rushing back, ribbons of tubing dripping continuous fluids, pain like a rolling carpet reintroducing him to his body, exquisite display of its infinite cracks and fissures, all its unsuspected fragility and dismay, how a man might fall like a clown playing a pratfall, and wake to find himself in agony, unable to cry aloud for fear of hearing his own voice." It's a brave and successful feat of storytelling that happens to be purely terrifying. None of us wants to be betrayed by our own minds; Koja shows just how easily it can happen.

Austen, told he is well but still subject to hallucinations, flees town and goes to visit his mother. Just as the intense, inner-directed depression begins to wear thin for the reader, Austen has a seizure in a bar and meets Russell, whose father was an epileptic. Russell is a positive force, who, if not understanding Austen, at least accepts him, visions and all. The small, barely detectable lightening of tone is, like a new note in a minimalist symphony, an incredible relief for both the readers and the characters.

Eventually Russell hunts down Emily, Austen's much-missed ex-wife. She's a hard-headed realist who doesn't think much of Russel, Austen, or their latest semi-medical discovery, Dr. Quiet, a specialist with a cure for hallucinating schizophrenics. Koja's description of Dr. Quiet's video presentation will certainly cure a number of readers of their ability to sleep in the dark. But I must admit that I did groan inwardly when Dr. Quiet recommended that Austen pursue an artistic solution to his mental problems. I asked the same question as the refreshingly skeptical Emily: "'It's the same Art 101 bullshit that I thought you grew out of. Can't you take responsibility for anything? Ever?'"

Fortunately, Dr. Quiet's treatment, no matter how trite it may seem in the abstract, is incredibly well-rendered. Koja flashes from hard-core quality fiction to genre horror to artistic speculation so fast the reader has barely recovered from one attack before the next begins. In the midst of this literal frenzy, she re-creates and heightens the flesh-crawling unease of the first portion of the novel. The surrealism of the finale makes the novel difficult to escape even after you've finished. "Bad Brains", like the mental damage it so lovingly describes, is a roach motel for the mind. Rarely is slow poison so enjoyable.