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Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically. Perhaps too ecstatically for popular tastes; though Dutton published him until the early ‘40s, by 1954 his books were appearing only in Spanish and Portuguese translations. His ostensible whodunits contain tales within tales, digressions on everything from the halftone process to Ouspenskian philosophy, and detours into the outer districts of dialect. (His 765-page The Box From Japan, by some lights the longest mystery novel ever written, features a monologue by a German-Mexican descendant of a Russo-Japanese War hero.) Even his plain English—the sturdy phonemes of his beloved Chicago—is none too plain. A typical sentence from The Mysterious Mr. I (1938) reveals certain punctuational fondnesses:
And here was I—at 4:20 in the morning—with not less than the tail-end—if not the tail itself!—of certain information by which $100,000 might be made to change hands—if and maybe, to be sure!—sitting in the office of MacLeish MacPherson, M.D.!
Yet there was method to his madness, if one believes his extended 1928 study, “The Mechanics and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction.” Serialized in eight numbers of The Author & Journalist, it may be the most impractical how-to ever written, a reminder that those who can (and do) shouldn’t necessarily teach.
The piece has its outrageous charms. In technicalese that betrays his engineering background, with illustrations that look like geometry proofs or parsing sticks gone haywire, Keeler explicates his “web-work” theory, anatomizing the “15 elemental plot combinations,” from a simple two-thread affair (a Venn diagram close-up) to the Scheherezade plot (a sort of runic hootenanny). A brief account of a character diverted from a route is rendered unhelpfully as “His path has changed from B-B’ to B-B”.” He decrees the “Keeler Law” (protagonist must have numerous interactions from start, thus providing threads for later weaving). On a metaphysical level, Keeler (depicted as a spider on one A&J cover) suggests that the doing of web-work “fills the gaps in one’s spirit which rebels at the looseness of life as it apparently is.”
The showstopper is a two-page graph of The Voice of the Seven Sparrows (1924), his first published novel. This skeletal representation looks like a subway conductor’s nightmare—timetable and station chart rolled into one. Lines—parabolic or straight, solid or dashed—represent characters (“Sarah Fu”) or objects (“Sheet of carbon paper”). Though the narrative clocks in at roughly four days, Keeler considers its chronology to begin with Confucius—and thus locates the left margin 500 years in the past. A detailed key to the 80 intersections (“And then Absalom!” reads plot point 76—did Faulkner subscribe to A&J?) itself reads like the short story of some itemizing postmodernist.
The public response could be characterized as one of irked bewilderment. (Perhaps Keeler sensed this earlier; in installment four he states, with a hypnotist’s conviction, “Your reading this very article is changing your course and mine by measurable degree: either your ideas are being modified and shifted to some extent, or else you are evolving antagonism toward my theories.”) Keeler does point out, albeit in the very last chapter, that he himself didn’t actually diagram his stories in this way—a pedagogical misstep, to be sure. Professional authors piped up in later A&Js, with the aptly named Oscar Friend tendering an olive branch entitled “How About a Compromise?”
What’s absent in “Web-Work” is the author’s motivation for writing in the first place—the Jamesian donnée, Nabokov’s “cosmic synchronization.” What got Keeler’s silk glands spinning? In 1947, he revealed “My ‘Million-Dollar’ Plot-Inventing Secret!” to Writer’s Digest; it involved extracting a sizable “chunk” from a finished story and weaving a new book around it—a potentially endless cycle of self-borrowing, the literary equivalent of a sourdough starter. The writer and law professor Francis M. Nevins, a seminal Keelerite, told the Voice that this practice is quite visible in Keeler’s manuscripts—long passages lifted from one novel appear, sometimes nearly verbatim, in a later MS.
But the question of how there came to be chunks in the first place is not addressed. Legend has it that Keeler drew randomly from news clippings and wove the disparate accounts together. (If this is true, his artificial method resembles the procédé of Roussel, who would take two sentences, nearly identical in spelling but not sense, and write the only story that could link the first to the last.) In his novels, this possible aleatory origin is not always well hidden; a Keeler chapter has enough coincidences to make Paul Auster blush.
A critic of an earlier version of “Web-Work” called his m.o. “the last word in formula.” But Keeler’s best novels are his most audacious, freaks of homegrown modernism in which the formula lies buried beneath a barrage of sheer (if spastic) style. The Marceau Case and X. Jones—Of Scotland Yard, both from 1936, offer divergent solutions to the same murder case—one with such improbable details (lawn mower, flying dwarf) as to border on slapstick. You can tease out the interconnections, develop them into a web-work chart if you like, but you will have wasted the better part of your youth. The books have an irresistible drive, a capacity for invention that borders on stream of consciousness, except that there’s no single narrative voice. The books, dossier-like, consist entirely of cablegrams and letters, diagrams and vaudeville ads, scraps of sheet music and penny dreadfuls and ersatz Winchell columns—not to mention photos, including one of Keeler himself, smiling as if caught breaking his own laws.*
If the multimedia onslaught of the Marceau books suggests an unhinged U.S.A., then The Mysterious Mr. I and The Chameleon (back in print after over 60 years, thanks to a small press called Ramble House) weigh in as a lower-brow Ulysses. For “ineluctable modality of the visible,” read “$100,000 reward!”; for a single Dublin day, an October 13 Chicagoland of 22-word newspaper headlines and meticulously rendered humor-magazine offices. Our hero, the ne plus ultra of unreliable narrators, gives a different name (med student George Spelvin; guest lecturer Scopester Glendenning) to everyone he meets; the catch is that even the reader can’t pin down his identity. Like an amphetamine Penelope with her daily shroud, he builds up each persona, only to unravel it a few minutes later; Keeler, master of the web-work, reads best when he seems to be falling apart.
* And, perhaps, sharing the proto- Oulipian orbit of Roussel. According to Mark Ford’s Raymond Roussel and the Republic of Dreams, “While on one level the procédé reveals all words—or fragments of words—to have potential double meanings, on another it imposes on them the strictest possible laws of connection.” The Marceau books hinge—or do they?—upon a single line of a manuscript, which reads: “ ‘Blimey, ‘Erb! Little?’ Lu Caslow’s dreary eyes”. Is the culprit Meyer B. Li? Or a midget funambulist named Little Lucas?
For more information on all things Keeler, visit the Harry Stephen Keeler Society.