Let Your Dictionshifter Be Your Ally
Mission Creep by Joshua Trotter (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2015, 104 pp., $18.95 CDN / $17.95 US).
Divided into twelve sections or chapters, Joshua Trotter’s Mission Creep is both a cyberpunk-infused long poem and a work of speculative fiction, in addition to being something like an anthology of non sequiturs studded with mysterious transmissions. The explosions of references, or transmissions, of Mission Creep are always crisscrossing, rippling across each other in an intriguingly dense inter-textuality Trotter refers to in the acknowledgements as “echoes, borrowings, remixes and frequency bleed-overs from countless texts, films, broadcasts, podcasts and websites.”
Given the sections themselves have no line breaks whatsoever, the reader is bombarded with a wildly percussive concatenation of jarring allusions and sonic loops, which is fitting for a book that clearly sets out to be a playful subversion of genre, consisting as it does of a book-length poem in twelve parts and/or a poetic novel of almost Joycean density. All told, it’s a huge departure from Trotter’s well-received and far more formalist debut collection All This Could Be Yours.
Perhaps Mission Creep could be read as an allegory of the creepy nature of writing and/or consciousness in the age of drones and surveillance, the no opt-out panopticon of 21st century life. With a paranoid gnosticism reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, it depicts a tech dystopia in a virtuosic scale of cracked registers. Trotter crafts a palimpsest of clues regarding possible readings of the book, but these clues are always already deferred. We are warned: “If you let it, the work will drive / you crazy, incomplete detail” (32). Avital Ronell writes in the “User’s Manual” to The Telephone Book: “Warning: The Telephone Book is going to resist you.” So will Mission Creep, both in terms of its transgressive poetics and its fractured narrative(s).
The relationships between the narrator, her seeming ally the Oracle, the Oracle’s foil the Iron Wind, and the dozens of other characters and place names feed into a pile-up of intentional multiplicities. In the narrator’s voice, Trotter puns on his surname: “I trot across Data Loss Bridge into New Domino City” (67). But just who is this I? The unreliable narrator is taken to its furthest extreme, as the hero, or anti-hero, not only remains unnamed, but is also a kind of everyman (or everywoman, as the narrator appears to be without gender). The narrator at times blends into the other characters, a trickster trotting across the city, filtering transmissions in a cyberpunk soundscape, a time traveller or resonance trapper. Like Evil Knievel, with whom the narrator is closely identified and who pops up frequently through the book, the narrator is a kind of daredevil or stunt double: “I am a professional life risker. I am the bravest in the world” (93). Arguably the narrator is akin to risk-taking writers like Antonin Artaud, one of many alluded to in the work:
. . . Let me be your miracle Oracle, leaping
twenty seven school buses. Let THE BANALITY
OF EVIL KNIEVEL be my mid-life mortality ploy,
mired in the rubble of the theatre and its double. (8)
Given its intertextual nature, Mission Creep can be read as a do-it-yourself hypertext, a cut-and-paste running gag to be explored through the interface of search engines: “Query the star search engine of your choice. / The galactic quest for answers leads to time-saving / devices like the Judas chair and/or Yahoo” (11). The burlesque mixing of the Romantic quest with science fiction, current technology, and torture is certainly discomfiting. You can almost see Kiefer Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 torturing bad guys in the background saving the world in the nick of time. Google “Judas chair” and Bauer’s anti-terror heroism evaporates instantly.
So far reading the book probably sounds like it’s a whole lot of work, but it’s a fun read, a witty maze of jokes, puns, and ironic inversions. “I’m not joshing you here” (61) Trotter writes, punning on his first name. But he is. Sort of. Much of the time anyway. His darkly prolific sense of humour is exemplified in the dozens of proper nouns scattered nonsensically through the work. Here are a few of my favourites: a power-hungry angel that calls itself the New Woody Allen, My Rise to Power Pizza, the Corpus Colloseum, Mr. Knife Guy, the Book of Odd Jobs, the Kingdom of Wonder Bras.
Mission Creep is an assemblage of fragments that actively assaults received language. “Let your DictionShifter be your ally” Trotter writes, and as his diction twists and turns, familiar language is punctured by shifting the somnambulist messages of advertising, clichés, dead metaphors, propaganda, and even the dehumanizing technical language of documents such as the CIA’s “Human Resource Exploitation” Manual. If you passively receive language through the veiled agitprop transmissions of TV, marketing, and the entertainment military industrial complex, then “Mission Creep” creeps up on you. Alternatively, you can shift the existential gears of your linguistic vehicle, namely, your very self, with your “DictionShifter.” Like this:
We leaked private photos of stunt doubles, shadow-
figures flailing as they fell, caught in the gawk of river-
trolling cameras, broadcast real-time to a chorus of
yesses. How the stool pigeon was made to sing, I’ll
reveal after these messages. (49)
The lurid invasion of privacy is satirized and inverted, as the private photo is of a mere double. The alliteration that follows in the phrase “figures flailing as they fell” is a sample of Trotter’s natural facility with more formal poetic devices, which is then followed by the assonance of “caught in the gawk” before he weaves back into the theme of transmissions with the phrase “broadcast real-time.” The diction then shifts to the language of the detective novel, with its “stool pigeon” as character, this announced to us ironically in the tones and phrasing of the TV announcer. There’s a lot packed in here, and yet it’s no denser than any other chunk of the nearly one hundred pages of the book. Still, Mission Creep offers considerable rewards for those willing to enter this strategic density:
Units shifted faster than speeding tickets after cranking
life density to maximum. At MAXIMUM DENSITY
˂1019 Hz˃ things look lifelike the more things look
Bruce Andrews in his essay “Electronic Poetics” gives us an idea of how we might proceed to read a book that’s been built in this way:
Reading’s task: to reentangle, rather than decipher; you don’t
decipher a labyrinth. Your clicks of attentiveness pile up into a
density. An opaque screen becomes an actionoriented control
In the acknowledgements, Trotter refers to the work itself as a transmission. There’s some play here with the term “mission creep,” or the tendency for military endeavours to escalate to the point where original objectives become dangerously problematic. When the mission turns, as it inevitably will, it becomes creepy, a kind of dangerous transmission, akin one can assume to whatever forces are lurking within “The Tower of the Listener” and the “Iron Wind.”
As dozens of transmissions, measured in hertz, are interspersed through the work, the inquisitive reader, acting as the captain of her personal control panel, can plot them into YouTube while reading the book. Doing so makes for an uncanny and unique reading experience. Though there’s an aleatoric absurdity to the transmissions, the book remains a meditation on the nature of sound, not just in terms of its hyperactive, disjointed poetics, but also in terms of how sound itself is transmitted to us. Given the exponential reverberations refracting within the book, perhaps we can read Mission Creep not just as a hypertext but also play it as an instrument, part musical and part linguistic, one that glides across a series of detours within detours, a Chinese puzzle or patchwork of elision, whose concentrated details, try as we might to unpack them, perpetually elude us, much like meaning itself.
One of the main poetic tools in Mission Creep is its use of synchysis, a rhetorical strategy whereby words are scattered to confuse the reader; the effect is to arrest discursive thinking by jolting language processing. Synchysis throws the reader into a kind of helter-skelter alternate reality, a fertile anti-synthesis of refreshingly surprising word clusters. Trotter employs synchysis in an incessant overloading of clashing content:
. . . Systemic lists of ad libs.
Pi charts. Heart rates. Tasers if necessary. Tear gas if
mercenary. Wind drift. Airlifts. Lots of shots of mostly
cleavage. At the end of each word, in the dark, there’s
a splash, sparkling synchysis; on his pillar of fire, St.
Simeon Stylites, receiving transmissions, tries not to
weep into the blue machinery. (55)
In addition to the ad libs themselves, the spontaneous scattering of synchysis throws us out of our quotidian frames; pie charts becomes Pi charts, which are coupled with the clinical phrasing of “heart rates.” Taser is a bisyllabic word that plays off tear gas and both are tools of violent suppression and/or war; at the same time that the rhymes of necessary/mercenary and drift/airlifts reveal formal poetics, the “joshing” tone belies deadly content: the language of measuring and controlling individual bodies and populations, crowd control in domestic populations and in war zones. The jarring “Lots of shots of cleavage” satirizes the conjunction of sensationalism, prurience, marketing and our collective drive to violence, while “at the end of each word” a perhaps orgasmic splash occurs; there’s also plenty of alliteration with all the “S” words, and an obscure allusion to Christian hagiography looping back into the transmission theme. Amidst all the ironic chatter and juxtapositions, the reader’s pushed headlong into re-framing the very nature of language.
Mission Creep undercuts linear reading in a kaleidoscopic, disclosure-blocking poetics. In the place of closure, a language game of turns or swerves creeps up on us by way of the volta, which is akin to a marathon session of channel-surfing: “I try to change the channel” (45). The inter-textual reading on offer here is akin to moving the dial across a radio trying to tune into the right station, or filtering click-bait to land on satisfying Internet quarry. Trotter not only employs the volta but in a meta-moment overtly refers to it:
... All winter I waited for reverb, craving the
volta of the Oracle’s voice, air-guitaring over lampblack
hills to vault me from my prison. (32)
The first turn consists of the passage from the plaintive “All winter” to “reverb,” which could be short for reverberation and so an allusion to the theme of frequencies, or it could also mean to re-verb, or verb again, to come to action after a period of stasis, namely winter. There’s a turn back to the plaintive tone of craving the Oracle’s voice, perhaps where the Oracle represents a kind of muse, but that’s immediately undercut by the absurd image of the Oracle playing an air-guitar, along with the further irony of the instant splicing of the poetical “lampblack hills” to “vault” (another poetical word) the narrator from his prison. Whatever soothsaying the Oracle may have to offer, it immediately turns in the “volta of the Oracle’s voice,” like a drug one craves that promises knowledge but merely leads to further synaptic leaps in a linguistic labyrinth without exit, a kind of mental prison whose post-apocalyptic transmissions offer no salvation save the salve of laughter.
In the thick, fugue-like yoking together of divergent strains in Trotter’s language, no sooner do we enter one thought or memory than we are jolted immediately into another. Though the thwarting of a sensical weave for all Trotter’s allusions is disorienting, through perseverance, we may map the violence of new directions for language through the elision of frames we have never encountered mashed, looped, or spliced together in just this way. And there can be no doubt that Trotter gets at a synaptic itch you may not have even realized was there before you embarked into the bizarre sonic textures of Mission Creep.