Kathe Koja, Dark Factory

Kathe Koja’s new novel, Dark Factory, is a gushing psychedelic cascade. The book is about artists and musicians and techies and entrepreneurs, who work to create, and to control, immersive, multisensory augmented and virtual realities — whether inside a computer game, or at an all-night dance club. But just reading the book is already a kind of artificially enhanced experience — to the extent that this is attainable just through prose. Koja’s sentences erupt and flow with scenes that dizzyingly metamorphose through gerundive constructions and paratactic additions, jumping in mid-sentence from one location, one action, into another. Everything seems to be glowing and melting and transitioning. The novel is all process rather than product. Even when the characters stop for a moment — say, to eat or to sleep, necessities that cannot be evaded — it is just an eyeblink and then they are off again, in breathlessly ever-changing configurations. Dark Factory takes that old modernist dream — to enact what you depict, to become what you represent — and pulls it into the twenty-first century.

Koja describes her book as an immersive novel. Part of the way that it draws us in — or better, invites us in, seduces us in — is through its blurry boundaries. Aside from the main text of the novel, there are extra, supplementary sections, which are presented as documents from the novel’s world. written by one or another of the characters, or by journalists and publicists observing them. You can read these extra sections as you go along, or wait until you have finshed the main novel, and then dig in. There are even more extra texts, together with audio recordings and videos, on the book’s website, https://darkfactory.club/. Readers are implicity encouraged to add their own materials to this collection. As we enter the world of the novel, that world enters into us. Every additional document makes it richer and more inclusive.

But immersion is not only the style of the novel; it is also what the book itself is about. Dark Factory draws the reader into its fictions; but its characters are themselves artists, in search of an immersive aesthetics. The Dark Factory itself is a key location in the first chapters of the novel: a dance club that stays open all night, a place of music and rhythm, of flashing lights and neon graffiti, together with additional elements of augmented, virtual reality, tailored to the desires of individual clients (or better, participants). It feeds on your desires while also feeding those desires, in an ever-expanding loop of intensities. The club closes down part-way through the novel, but the characters continue to pursue the high — or better, to themselves construct that high, even more intensely, with sensations heightened even further, in ever-more-dazzling soundscapes and lightscapes (and even. perhaps, smellscapes and touchscapes).

The novel is set in unnamed cities and landscapes: places unspecified, but definitely located in North America and in Europe. When we aren’t ensconced in the clubs or in the workshops, we follow along with the characters down the streets; there are rundown industrial areas, business districts, and gentrifying upscale neighborhoods with their cappuccino stands and artisanal boutiques. Some of the characters crash in unheated, abandoned lofts; others have temporary access to exquisite yuppie condos. Koja’s prose immerses us in smells and tastes, as well as subtle or grandiose forms of light, and above all insistent beats.

The book seems to be situated, in time as well as in space, just beyond the bleeding edge of the present. We have a VR technology called Y, that is slightly more convincingly immersive than what actually exists today. The novel also contains made-up slang that convincingly sounds like stuff people will actually be saying just a few years from now. Dark Factory does not proclaim its allegiance to any particular literary genre, but it reads to me like near-future science fiction, in its socio-technological inventions as well as in its visionary intimations.

Dark Factory switches back and forth between the POVs of its two main protagonists. Ari is a producer or scene-maker. He is all about setting up the best parties, the newest and most intense experiential zones. Max is an artist and writer, who envisions and builds multimedia installations. Ari and Max are sometimes rivals, more often collaborators and finally friends. At the start, Ari is managing everyone’s favorite nightclub, and Max is running an outdoors augmented-reality environment. They both get displaced from these initial projects, and over the course of the novel they end up collaborating on a mega-event that combines computer gaming (Max working with some programmers) with techno beats and crowds of dancers and listeners (Ari producing along with technical and artistic helpers). In between, we see the ups and downs of their own relationship, together with those of the people around them. Most notably, we meet Ari’s boyfriend, the genius DJ Felix, and Max’s sometime girlfriend, the ferociously intellectual journalist Marfa (yes, she is named after the famous Texas art site).

The novel also sports an additional cast of dancers, party people, nightlife denizens, and especially wealthy patrons. These rich people provide the money that the creative people need in order to realize their projects. But money men and women also jerk the creative people around in various obnoxious ways. The patrons range from megalomaniacal corporate types who want to control everything, to self-proclaimed entrepreneurs with dubious finances, unpredictable whims, and dangerous ties to Russian gangsters. The plot of the novel mostly consists in a series of negotiations between the various parties. Ari gets stuck in a number of unpleasant commercial arrangements, from which he continually needs to extricate himself.

But the real reason the novel works so well is because the ebb and flow of these relationships and arrangements is continuous with the creative activity of the main characters. Somehow nights at the club, or days in the engineered VR environment, are not all that different from the flow of interacting personalities, or the traversal of one urban regin after another — at least the ways in which they are described in Koja’s hallucinogenic prose. We are continually sliding from Ari’s having to manipulate, or else be manipulated by, various bosses and investors, and the delirium of the nighttime events he nonetheless manages to make happen. Similarly, Max negotiates between the highs and lows of his unstable mood swings, and the experiential richness of the VR game (or better, VR environment) that he manages to author. Dancers and graffiti artists bring their own delicate touches. Felix the DJ is almost supernatural in his talent: several times in the course of the novel, his playing triggers Dionysian orgies and even seismic activity. The novel brings us to the edge of what might be a life-transforming experience: sex and drugs and music and dancing, so intense as to rend the veil of Maya and give us glimpses of ultimate reality. But there are no final pronoucements; this amazing high might be nothing more than having a good time. In any case, the novel stops on the brink — we are left to continue the quest ourselves.

Kathe Koja started her writing career with a number of intense and innovative horror novels, such as The Cipher (1991) and Skin (1993). She has since written in a number of different genres, including YA as well as adult fiction. In a certain sense, Dark Factory brings her work full circle, albeit everything has been turned inside-out. Her horror fiction was about aesthetic transcendence and transformation, pushing beyond the limits of the human. In a sense, Dark Factory is much the same, returning to this terrain both in its prose style and in its theme. Except that here the dangerous process of exceeding human limits is suffused with love instead of hate, with hope instead of nihilistic rage and abjection, and with the sense of a potential community, rather than with one of atomization and alienation. We often want to believe the worst — and Koja’s early novels do lead us in this direction — but who is to say that such negativity is the ultimate? Dark Factory gives us a vision that is too fleeting to be redemptive — it is process and not product, and it is as fragile as it is overwhelming — but this vision is something that we desperately need in these otherwise horrendous times.