Harry Stephen Keeler - Everything is a McGuffin, a meaningless token that drives the plot, everything is, sooner or later, revealed to be irrelevant

Harry Stephen Keeler, The Riddle of the Traveling Skull (McSweeney's, 2005)

"Keeler takes the implicit absurdity of the mystery genre and makes it explicit."

«Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) is one of the strangest writers who ever lived. In his time, he was pegged as a mystery novelist who also wrote some science fiction. Today, if you've heard of him at all, it's as the Ed Wood of mystery novelists, a writer reputed to be so bad he's good. Actually, no genre, nor "camp," can much suggest what Keeler is all about. Take some typical Keeler situations:
A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own. Police suspect the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter. (X. Jones of Scotland Yard, 1936)
Someone killed an antique dealer just so he could steal the face - only the face - from a surrealist painting of "The Man from Saturn." (The Face of the Man from Saturn, 1933)
A woman's body disappears while taking a steam bath. Only her head and toes, sticking out of the steam cabinet, remain. (The Case of the Transparent Nude, 1958)
Because of a clause in a will, a character has to wear a pair of hideous blue glasses constantly for a whole year. This is so that he will eventually see a secret message that is visible only with the glasses. (The Spectacles of Mr. Cagliostro, 1929)
A poem leads the protagonist to a cemetery specializing in circus freaks and the grave of "Legga, the Human Spider," a woman with four legs and six arms. Legga was born in Canton, China, and died in Canton, Ohio. (The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, 1934)
A disgruntled phone company employee calls every man in Minneapolis, telling him the morning papers will name him as the secret husband of convicted murderess Jemimah Cobb, who runs a whorehouse specializing in women with physical abnormalities. (The Man With the Magic Eardrums, 1939)
Every resident of "Idiot's Valley" is mentally retarded and packs a gun. (Several novels; Idiot's Valley is Keeler's Yoknapatawpha County.)
Keeler's plots are so go-to-hell weird, they sound like a certain type of "serious" literature. But they're not!
... He did write plenty of sure-enough mysteries. Be warned, though, that his work bears no more relation to Christie or Hammett than does the phone book of Idiot's Valley. Although much of Keeler is steeped in the tradition of classical puzzle mysteries, woe to the reader who thinks he is going to guess the denouement. The Ace of Spades Murder is a whodunit in which the character who will be revealed guilty is introduced, for the first time, on the third-to-last page of the book.
Incredibly, Keeler tops that in X. Jones of Scotland Yard. The guilty party is not mentioned until the last sentence of the last page of this 448-page story.
Keeler wrote other genre fiction: thrillers, historical romances, and science fiction. In the latter category is a remarkable short story, "John Jones' Dollar." The premise is that a guy puts a dollar in a savings account where it grows, through compound interest, to such a fortune that, centuries later, it is used to found a socialist utopia. This is possibly Keeler's best-known story and would rate extensive anthologization if the writing wasn't so bad, even by stiff Keeler standards of badness. I don't know enough about the history of science fiction to say if this clever idea was original with Keeler, but he wrote it in 1914 and the idea is now a sort of s-f cliche (Douglas Adams spoofs it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe).
... Keeler created, and was seemingly the sole practitioner of, a genre he called the "webwork novel." This is a story in which diverse characters and events are connected by a strings of wholly implausible coincidences.
That's interesting because, well, you're not supposed to do that. Most Western literature avoids coincidences. The author is permitted a single unlikely premise, and then everything is supposed to follow inevitably from that. Keeler's stories are coincidence porn. Coincidence is very much the raison d'etre.
Towards the end of the novel, all the subplots mesh together to produce a stunning surprise ending. In order to that achieve that effect, Keeler throws plausibility out the window. He uses what amount to plot "wild cards." A crazy clause in a will requires a character to [fill in the blank!] in order to inherit a fortune. An obscure religious cult believes such and such. A nutty law requires something else. Now don't think that Keeler worried himself about whether there really was such a law or belief, or whether the will could stand up in court.
Keeler took the webwork novel seriously enough to turn out a detailed manual on webwork plotting, complete with insanely confusing diagrams. Did anyone actually read this and try to use it?
Keeler's narrative style is no less incredible than his plots. Indeed, the two can scarcely be distinguished, for his writing is essentially all plot. Characterization, description, dialog, and use of language hardly exist in the conventional sense. Every paragraph hits you over the head with new and implausible information. There is little room for anything else.
In many of his later works, Keeler takes this daft aesthetic a step further. Despite this total concentration on plot, almost nothing happens within the time-frame of the narrative. It's all digressions about what happened off stage! Again, that's not something they advise you to do in writing courses. The effect is so baroque that it goes way beyond usual notions of "bad writing." It is more in the spirit of Oulipo than commercial fiction, good or bad.
Keeler's characters are mechanical contrivances. I mean that not, particularly, in a pejorative sense. It is simply the way a Keeler story works. Each character is a compressed spring poised to serve its role. Free will hardly exists. The perfect Keeler character is a clockwork automaton; the perfect Keeler plot is a pinball machine.
In one novel, there's a character named Suing Sophie. Sophie goes on transpacific cruise ships, striking up an acquaintance with a single man on board. When the ship gets into port, Sophie bids her male friend farewell by loudly exclaiming, "Yes! I'll marry you!" then rushing off. Now the man has not proposed marriage. But Sophie has made sure that there are plenty of witnesses to her farewell. Soon afterward, the man is greeted with a breach of promise lawsuit for failing to marry Sophie. In the settlement, Sophie collects a huge award, which she then uses to travel to the cannibal isles of the South Pacific; specifically to islands whose inhabitants have recently been converted by Christian missionaries. There Sophie convinces them of the errors of their recent conversion, and reconverts them as practicing Jews.
You know all this and more about Sophie; before it's over, Keeler probably gets more plot mileage out of Sophie than Flaubert does out of Emma Bovary. The difference is that Sophie does not appear in the action of Keeler's novel at all. Other characters just allude to her.
In Agatha Christie at her sharpest, everyone is a suspect. In Keeler, everything is a McGuffin, that is to say, an essentially meaningless token that drives the plot. Because the webwork novel is so fundamentally phony, everything is, sooner or later, revealed to be irrelevant. A typical Keeler plot is a fractal shaggy dog story, filled with digressions, and digressions within digressions, that are themselves shaggy dog stories.
As in a shaggy dog story, the truest synopsis of a Keeler plot is: Never mind.
... Much of Keeler's writing is genuinely hilarious. You are never given the luxury of being sure it is supposed to be. Take some of his character names:
Criorcan Mulqueeny [corrupt political boss]
Screamo the Clown [dead clown]
Scientifico Greenlimb [science-fiction writer]
Wolf Gladish [evil circus impresario]
State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck.
These are funny in a subtle way: You get the impression that if a stupid person was trying to come up with "funny" names, he might come up with these names -- which are funny because they fail to be funny. You're laughing at the idea that someone would think these names are funny, rather than at the names themselves.
Of course, in a larger sense, these names are funny, for the reason above. The question is whether Keeler is the true naif, or the comic impersonating a naif. It's hard to say, and the answer may not be 100 percent either way.
Keeler sometimes supplies detailed road directions or family histories and has the characters recite them in full several times during a novel. Often this ends up being marvelously funny. That's tough to pull off, and I suspect that the humor must be intentional.
I am pretty sure that Keeler did not see himself as being in the business of turning out parodies of the mystery genre, though. He took his writing seriously enough. Some of what strikes us as funny (skulls in novel after novel) almost surely wasn't intended as such.» - William Poundstone

«Harry Stephen Keeler 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 andmaybe, 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 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.» - Ed Park

«The candy-salesman hero of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull might be describing his creator's peculiar allure—and the cravings of the Harry Stephen Keeler cult—when he refers to his company's latest product as "a new and weird and engaging candy flavor that caused every tongue over which it trickled to hang out for more, more, more!"
...Aficionados adore Keeler for (a) his prose style, which springs jacks of hyperbole and surrealism from the whodunit's musty Edwardian box; and (b) his "web-work" plotting, which often surpasses the Illuminatus! trilogy for sheer lunatic, self-justifying intricacy. "Keeler does everything you are never supposed to do as a novelist," writes editor Paul Collins, apropos of (a), in his introduction to this snappy new reprint from the Collins Library. As to (b), "Keeler takes the implicit absurdity of the mystery [genre] and makes it explicit." Sober admirers of Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and their upper-middlebrow ilk might challenge Collins's assumption of the form's "absurdity." And anyway, what's unquestionable—and lovable—about Keeler is that he makes his own absurdity so explicit.
The Riddle of the Traveling Skull, first published in 1934, begins when our hero, Clay Calthorpe, inadvertently gains possession of a satchel containing a human skull. The skull has several unusual features: a metal disc bearing numbers and a name, paper stuffing scrawled with sentence fragments, a bullet hole, and a bullet. In seeking the skull's provenance, Calthorpe ranges over the burgeoning expanse and social strata of Chicago ("that strange London of the West," he calls it), meanwhile detailing characters like Philodexter Maxellus, Ichabod Chang, and Sophie Kratzenschneiderwumpel.
Keeler famously systematized his principles of narration and character motivation in a multi-part article entitled "The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction" (1928). Sample: "It should be evident that in many cases the motiving of a desired incident with respect to that participant in it who is not fixed by the exigencies of the required plot, can and does form part of the motivation for the fixed participant." Skull may represent a later evolution of such theories, as its action functions more on the helter-skelter principle. Which was far from unusual in the pop novel of Keeler's day: His plotting is actually not much more Byzantine than, say, John Buchan's, or his commitment to plausible motivation more marginal than that of Earl Derr Biggers. Improbable yarns and exotic personages, too, were the popular standard in the reign of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard.
As a plotter, Keeler mainly lacks a sense of distribution. Rather than apportioning greater weight to scenes with key value, Skull features protracted pursuits of hunches that don't pan out, elaborate expositions of eventualities that don't occur. There are enough MacGuffins to smother Hitchcock, enough coincidences to render Dickens a chaos theorist. Keeler doesn't always trouble himself to plant essential information early, so that its climactic reappearance will ring both surprising and true: Repeatedly, the rational impossibilities engendered by his own perfervid plotting are simply neutralized by an expedient invention. It can't have been so difficult for Keeler to construct his web-work plots when he knew any dangling strand could be secured, come crunch time, to an explanation conjured on the spot.
Then there's the racism. Francis M. Nevins, whose 1969 serial study in The Journal of Popular Culture sparked Keeler's rediscovery, thought the author "hated racism deeply, but refused to be solemn about the subject and insisted on his right to express himself in a way that could be misinterpreted." Richard Polt, founder of the Harry Keeler Society, has written a more recent defense on the same lines. Both argue that the totality of Keeler's work ameliorates individual cases, some of which they admit are nonetheless loathsome. Skull is one of those cases: At the very least, it is deformed as entertainment by the insistent (therefore purposive) use of such charming locutions as "Cockney bastard," "stinking Chink," "confounded Mick," and "moron negro." Scarcely three pages pass without some malodorous slur; in the concluding chapters, the Chinese and Germans are hit especially hard. Some Keeler novels are explicitly anti-racist, others merely ambivalent about otherness. But gauged on its extremes, Keeler-mania would seem to depend partly on one's willingness to inhabit a universe in which Anglo-Saxon bravehearts are alternately aided or assaulted by a succes-sion of pidgin-speaking ethnics.
But that's scarcely all there is inside this Skull—the novel, or Keeler's cranium. The book is full to bursting with woolly characters, stupefying style, and narrative so convoluted as to be self-consuming. There are addled adverbs ("friendlily," "troubledly") and silly similes ("like a drunken mule with elephants' feet grafted onto his ankles"); oafish constructions ("my own last only chance") and oddball gangsterisms ("muffed his stunt"); antique phrases ("microscopical," "spirituelle") and touching homilies ("People change, as well as styles in dogs"). Exclamation points abound, not only as sentence-enders ("And it was a bullet!") but as chapter-starters ("Filkins the Poet!"). The first-person voice is alternately loquacious and halting: A period will fall onto the page out of nowhere, more or less arbitrarily. In the middle of a sentence. To break it up. Into two fragments. Or three. Or more! It's as if both peripatetic hero and indefatigable author were gasping between wind sprints.
Pixilation enlivens and estranges the dialogue—vide this exchange between the hero, recently beaned from behind, and some Irish cops:
"The minute I went up the steps of No. 1870, and tried to grope around in the vestibule for a push button, the house fell on my head and I traveled through space with the square root of minus one—" "What's that?"
"That's the speed of light, according to Einstein," said the other of the plainclothesmen. "He's persiflageous, Sarge!"
In the manner of the broken clock that's correct twice a day, Keeler will here and there fashion a passage, or merely an aperçu, that is actually, conventionally good. Like the narrator's sketch of a suburban housing development, "with small one-story bungalows laid around within it, and little toy garages with red-tiled roofs in back of each. A single combined driveway and entrance for all the natives to get in. Or to get out." Or his coining of piquant names for imaginary periodicals, such as Hearstmopolitan and Literary Regurgitation. Or his suggestion to a lam-considering criminal that "Canada is as much of a refuge for you as—as a Wisconsin lumber camp is for a lost virgin."
In life and death, Keeler has borne his critics' attacks—the latest being a piece in the December 21 New York Sun by Mysterious Bookshop owner Otto Penzler that is less a hatchet job than a series of shallow pinpricks. ("Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health," Penzler writes, in what is ostensibly a review of The Riddle of the Traveling Skull but overall evidences greater familiarity with the McSweeney's press release than with the novel itself.) Indeed, there are sound reasons for disliking Keeler's work. But mediocrity is not among them. Unlike the cults around, say, Ed Wood or Eisenhower-era lounge music—the fetishizing of dullness, the caressing of a void—Keeler's is a cult of the wildly overcreative, the sincerely, bountifully bizarre.
In the words of Skull's Teutonic neurosurgeon, "Life! What a tangle it is, isn't it! Gott! People—objects—all bound together—in all sorts of odd relationships!" That's Harry Stephen, whether you get him whole, halfway, or not at all. But for those willing to look past the racism—a challenge—Keeler is a home-brewed hallucinogen, the literary equivalent of the quackish medical compounds and energy elixirs once peddled by tent and wagon in those dark decades before the all-night infomercial. He had a bent of brain and twist of pen that make him an acquired but irreplaceable taste—not Electric Kool-Aid, but its ancestral counterpart, its Depression-bred grandfather: Voltaic Yoo-Hoo, perhaps.» - Devin McKinney



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