Mars Review of Books: Issue 1

A Uniquely Protean Triumph by Tess Crain ~dotpem-maplyr

Jul 31, 2022 • ~bidbel



Independently Pubished, 256pp, $16.16

Who is CTRLCREEP? The pseudonymous writer appeared on Twitter in 2014, posting bizarre, enthralling snippets that read like Zen koans penned by a sentient AI—which, as far as I know, they are. According to the sociologist Martin Innes, the term “control creep” refers to a “deeply entrenched process . . . whereby the social control apparatus progressively expands and penetrates (or ‘creeps’) into different social arenas, in response to . . . fears about a sense of security in late-modernity.” “CTRLCREEP” might evoke, too, a keyboard shortcut or a buggily scrolling cursor. But who is behind the name? They offer no pronouns, no anthropic descriptors of any kind, on any platform (Twitter, Patreon, Substack). In 2019, CTRL stepped from the internet into the physical realm to self-publish a book, Fragnemt, but kept the disguise. Their Twitter bio reads simply, delightfully: “analog, but not for long.”

Yet readers tend to project an identity—typically their own—into the void. As CTRL writes in Fragnemt: “Text fragments this short transmit meaning through reflection—hypercompression is a mirror, holding code to your mind and broadcasting its own themes back. The smaller something is, the more it’s you.” My male programmer friend, after starting Fragnemt, began calling CTRL “he” because “he seems like a tech bro, and kind of like me on Ambien” (to his and CTRL’s credit, he has some pretty fascinating if inchoate ideas when he’s on Ambien). On Goodreads, one megafan writes: “I have a ritual of reading Ctrlcreep’s fragments everyday [sic] on his Twitter. . . . Every one of his sentences is carefully crafted and perfected.” Meanwhile, I’ve come to suspect CTRL is a woman in her late twenties or early thirties, solitary, who loves math and science and literature.

Woman or man, cis- or transgender, human or animal, organic or machine? It feels natural to speculate. Yet the choice to write under a pseudonym—moreover, one not obviously deterministic of any subgroup of Homo sapiens—signals at least a resistance to analysis if not an overt attempt to thwart these instincts. Ultimately, CTRL’s “true” identity is not only irrelevant—this very irrelevance encapsulates, at every level, the most dominant and poignant quality of Fragnemt: a relentless shapeshifting in the face of categorization, definition, identification, comprehension.

Much of the book comes in abstract prose poems, half science-fiction musing, half alien catechism, flinging us forward millennia into a post-apocalypse of avatars and capitalism, or winching us back into the atavistic abyss. Formally, it is divided into five sections: Sequent, Figment, Segment, Remnant, and Letters. Sequent is Tweets (comprising 53% of the book); Figment is newsletter installments (8%); Segment is stories (26%); Remnant is nightmares (7%); Letters is letters to CTRL’s future daughter, granddaughter, and so on (6%). While I wouldn’t call Fragnemt ergodic literature, exactly, the nature of Sequent, especially, allows for and even encourages a decentralized, nonlinear reading. In the forward, CTRL lists potential “side effects” of their work, including: “long hours spent pondering, chasing clues to foreign places and exotic psychologies through the cracks of orthography and fantastical imagery, only to return to the beginning with newfound fascination for the patch you left.” Reactions may also entail: “physico-mathematical longing,” “dreams in triplicate,” “cyclical déjà vu.” With the caveat that I already suffer from chronic nightmares and their associated disturbances (it has been suggested that déjà vu occurs more frequently in people who dream often), I can attest to experiencing all of these symptoms.

If The Matrix were written in the choose-your-own-adventure style of Roberto Bolaño’s “Dance Card,” Babel-17 sliced-and-diced like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, Clarice Lispecter and Jorge Luis Borges recombined from the DNA of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, with a pinch of Twittersalt and the ambience, if not the format, of early hypertext novels, something approaching Fragnemt might emerge. Yet while CTRL traces others’ footsteps in organization and theme, the author goes further by wedding them, oddity to oddity, like Frankenstein’s monster to his bride. Consider Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, which similarly uses the laboratory of a speculative world to test hypotheses of gender, sexuality, species, race, and biological determinism. Where Butler’s books accomplish this wonderfully, they do so through largely conventional narrative. Fragnemt does something else, creating a kind of mise en abyme: hyphenate protagonists nested inside a hybrid literary organism—all contained within the shapeshifting entity that is the cryptic author, CTRLCREEP.

This slipperiness of identity generates both the genius of and the problem with Fragnemt. Overall, there is more genius than problem. Surreal and gorgeous, the book writhes with protean characters, offering a sardonic zoo in which the real, the mythological, the technological, and the neologistic creature have equal odds of occurring. On page one, we encounter, “Gods impatiently asking themselves ‘do I exist yet?’ on the road trip from nothingness to being.” Later, “Aphrodite changes like the sea. Her skin is in flux, churned by little waves, her body swells and shrinks. . . . She is brave and harsh one moment, and then shy, small and crying, face transforming from painting to memory.” After telling us that ghosts harden in the mold of trauma, CTRL promises that, if you manage to heal, “your limbs will soften, then shapeshift, and you will play in the afterworld as a flickering doe, falcon, dragonfly, polygon.”

CTRL fashions a kaleidoscopic world where cosmetic surgery involves “transhuman eyelid modifications” while “Synaesthetic makeup pulses with the music.” Not to mention all the cuttlefish, those mollusks known as “chameleons of the sea”—blessed with the ability to alter the color, pattern, and shape of their skin, specimens may resemble in rapid turn a deflated football, a horny toad, and a huge dragonfruit with fuchsia castellations. This capacity for radical self-transformation seems to enchant CTRL, who writes: “Cuttlefish lipstick throbs and blinks, shifting with the light. It’s . . . like her mouth is changing shape.” And, right after, one of my favorites: “I have cuttlefish cells transplanted into my face and I unlock my phone by speed-blushing a passcode sequence of colors and patterns.” CTRL’s Patreon supporters even earn “cuttlefish” status for giving five dollars a month. Unsurprising, then, that the book comprises a flickering bestiary of tadpoles, phoenixes, chimeras, “butterfly sexbots,” and “chameleon fate-gods.”

Still, there is something uncomfortable about CTRL’s work, a persistent irony in the pages that makes you wonder if, after all, you’re just being trolled. In “A Cyborg Manifesto” (I have to imagine CTRL has read the seminal 1985 essay, although this, too, is speculation), Donna Harraway writes: “Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play”—in Fragnemt’s forward, CTRL urges the reader to “Practice intense whimsy”—Harraway continues: “It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method . . . . At the center . . . is the image of the cyborg.” Considering these central tenets, and the idea of the cybernetic organism combining the natural and technological in a single self, Fragnemt is a cyborg of a book if I’ve ever read one.

Sequent, the section composed of Tweets, is the book’s problem child. “Problem-child” is what Carl Jung called the dream—and Sequent is the most dreamlike section (even more than Remnant, supposedly sourced from CTRL’s actual nightmares). Like a succession of dream fragments, the Tweets stand alone yet gain meaning through accretion, while at the same time revealing no definite delineations: Each relates to, but does not define, the one that comes after, so you could stop anywhere. Reading Sequent straight through is slow going; I’m not sure if it is the best approach. Maybe better would be to read a few Tweets a day, as one often does poetry, and as they were originally published online. Still, moving through Sequent, well, sequentially, and then the rest of the book, offers satisfaction. For a dreamlike work, a dreamlike analysis, so I turn again to Jung: “I have called this unconscious process spontaneously expressing itself in the symbolism of a long dream-series the individuation process.” By the time one finishes Sequent, a hint of an individual author has surfaced; finishing Fragnemt, the individual feels whole, if still shrouded in mist. It is by this sense of a unified self—regardless of identity—underneath the work that Fragnemt succeeds.

Toward the end of the book, we reach a story that strikes me as a parable for reading Fragnemt itself. In “Hypermorphia,” the protagonist encounters a girl afflicted with “Abraxas Sylvata Syndrome.” The disease, initially confined to her face and concealed by a mask, is marked by “Accelerated mutational cell regeneration. Colloquially known as Magician’s Cancer.” One night, she has a seizure, and as the protagonist carries her home: “The mask comes off. Eyes are multiplying, splintering across her face, rolling and blinking, merging, reforming as lumps of roiling diamond, a polygonal ocean surface. Waves break and become fur, growing in spirals, solidifying as a tilting of stone barnacles. The innermost whorls rise synchronously, become horns, flatten into scales, turn plastic and transparent, then sink into her skin and for a moment a perfect, flawless human face beams through the psychedelic murk.” The transmogrifications resume, and in the morning, “she’s bedecked in fluttering monarch scales.” But it doesn’t matter: the protagonist has seen a face beneath the face, one they believe to be uniquely hers, and they have fallen in love.

Reading this story, my favorite in the book, I experienced something similar toward CTRLCREEP. It was as though, to paraphrase “Hypermorphia,” the memory of CTRL’s face in that single instant I may have glimpsed it swelled in my brain and refused to be banished. This brings me to a passage from Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, in which the narrator, a scholar of the brilliant but somewhat depressing writer J. K. Huysmans, strains to articulate why he has dedicated his life to this man’s work. Of all the arts, the narrator argues, “only literature can put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole, with all its weaknesses and grandeurs, its limitations, its pettiness, its obsessions, its beliefs; with whatever it finds moving, interesting, exciting, or repugnant. Only literature can grant you access to a spirit.” Whether an author “writes very well or very badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.” He adds, “It’s strange that something so simple. . . should actually be so rare: All too often, as we turn pages that seem to have been dictated more by the spirit of the age than by an individual, we watch these wavering, ever more ghostly, anonymous beings dissolve before our eyes . . . . In the same way, to love a book is, above all, to love its author.” This presence is what qualifies Fragnemt as a triumph, CTRLCREEP as deserving of our love.

Through Fragnemt’s alienating opacity and elusiveness, I have seen a face beneath the mask. I could be experiencing pareidolia (another pet concept of CTRL’s), bootstrapping a person from random data, seeing the Madonna in grilled cheese. It doesn’t matter. Whether or not I’ve seen the “real” CTRLCREEP, I feel them to be present, which is why I ultimately believe the book succeeds beyond thought experiment, beyond performance or provocation, as a work of literature. Fragnemt feels humanly specific and specifically human—even if it’s really written by a machine.

And if an AI could write Fragnemt, maybe artificial sentience is not only possible but desirable. In an era when AlphaCode competes with human programmers and GPT-3 generates weirdly moving poetry, when the concept of identity is more complex and contested than ever, there is something comforting about this idea. At the end of “Hypermorphia” we are told: “The brain . . . may retain structural integrity despite constant metamorphosis. The form changes, but information is preserved.” Maybe when CTRLCREEP goes fully digital, I can join them. Either way, I’ll enjoy knowing that they’re preserved in the uploaded universe, forever practicing intense whimsy.

by Tess Crain