As tempting as it is to describe Harry
Stephen Keeler in terms of Harry Mathews, Agatha Christie,
Raymond Queneau, Ann Quin, Roland
Italo Calvino, Thomas Pynchon, or Stephen
King, such comparisons are ultimately misleading—there's really
nobody like Keeler. Keeler is an individual, an
eccentric, a believer, driven by the click of a peculiar well-made
The impression of Keeler I get from reading his fiction is one of exuberant
naïveté. He seemed to write transgressive detective fiction
without a sense of subversion, irony, or radical literary experimentation,
and it is perpetually unclear whether he meant his writing to be as wonderfully
funny as it is. Francis Nevins, who, in 1970, was the first to publish
an article declaring Keeler to be a writer worthy of study (in the Journal
of Popular Culture), suspects that an unhappy childhood led to emotional
withdrawal and the
of a meticulous fantasy universe that his life's work attempted to express.
Harry Stephen Keeler was born in 1890, the same year as Agatha Christie.
He stayed in Chicago his entire life. His father died when he was eighteen
months old. His mother's second husband gambled away the family money,
mortgaged the family home, then committed suicide. To make ends meet,
his mother turned their home into a boarding house. Her third husband
died three years after they married; Harry was 13. In high school, Harry
worked as a paperboy. He received a degree in electrical engineering
from the Armour Institute of Technology, and worked both as an electrician
and in a steel mill.
His writing life apparently began at age 20. He sold his first story
in 1913. The following year his literary output increased, and he sold
a story for $10, which, according to Nevins, allowed him to pay four
weeks of back rent and take Hazel Goodwin, his future wife, out to
dinner (with wine) and a show (great seats). From 1919-1940, he served
editor of the magazine 10 Story Book. In 1919 he married Hazel.
In 1917 and 1926 he authored or co-authored a series of magazine articles
explaining his elaborate methods. The main series in 1926 was called The
Mechanics and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction.
After accumulating success as a short story writer, he sold his first
book in 1924: The Voice of the Seven Sparrows. While this novel is
already almost unreasonably complicated, it is mild compared to what
Harry continued to publish books of increasing size, implausibility,
and density. The Box From Japan (1932) is 762 pages, set in smaller
type than Gravity's Rainbow. By 1935 his web-work constructions could
fit in books, and a 350,000 word trilogy was published as The Marceau
Case (1936), X. Jones of Scotland Yard (1936), and The
Wonderful Scheme of Mr. Christopher Thorne (1937). Perhaps Keeler's experiences crafting
serial fiction for magazines was useful in composing serial novels.
I suspect though that his plots were too bizarre and fast-paced to generate
much actual suspense.
The volume of Keeler's output, especially during this period, was staggering,
though offset somewhat by his tendency to recycle his earlier short
fiction by including it in his novels, usually by having a character
a writer present a story to another character, then including the entire
text of the story. In Thieves' Nights (1929) he pulls a daring metafictional
maneuver by having stories within a story within a story, in which
a character from the innermost stories unexpectedly appears in the outer
From 1939-1942, Keeler wrote and published two simultaneous meganovels,
one released as a trilogy and the other as a tetralogy. At the same
time, he began to publish a third collection of six novels joined by
an element that appears in each: a (fictional) book of Chinese aphorisms
entitled The Way Out.
One year after the publication of The Peacock Fan (1941), with its
bizarre and paranoid portrayal of publishers, he was dropped by his publishing
house Dutton. This was the beginning of the end, professionally speaking.
He moved to the much smaller Phoenix press, who published nine shorter
novels until they dropped him in 1948. His English publisher Ward Lock
continued for a few years to publish books now unavailable in North
Then they dropped him. He continued to publish novels in Spain (unavailable
in English, the language in which Keeler wrote them), as translated
by the heroic Fernando Noriega Olea. When Instituto Editorial Reus of
his Spanish publisher, dropped him, Keeler's next two books were available
only in Portugal. During this time his novels became less dense with
events, less webby, less fraught with implausibly dense strings of
coincidences, but the characters and situations continued to become stranger
more tasteless. Many of these novels concern a recurring character:
Angus MacWhorter, leader of the Greatest Little Circus on Earth, a character
originally created by his wife Hazel Godwin Keeler (herself a writer)
in a story published in 1930.
Not being published in any language didn't seem to slow down Keeler's
output. It was the death of Hazel, his wife and collaborator, in 1960,
that stopped him. The following three years must have been dark ones.
But in 1963 Keeler remarried. With the support (and collaboration)
of Thelma Rinaldo Keeler, Harry began to continue to finish new manuscripts.
In 1965 he completed the triumphant, inscrutably weird masterpieces
Journey and The Scarlet Mummy. Keeler was devoted to both
his wives and collaborated with them, including (and crediting to them)
in his own novels. To Keeler scholars, Hazel and Thelma's writing lacks
the strangeness, charm, and relentless inappropriateness of Keeler's
prose, but this scholar finds Harry's tendency toward collaboration
his better halves fun, radical, subversive, feminist, and touching.
Keeler died, unpublishable, prolific, and happily married, in 1967,
leaving over 70 complete books, and twelve unfinished manuscripts. The
editions are very difficult to find, but all of Keeler's novels, including
those never published in English, are now being brought back into print
by the plucky Ramble House (ramblehouse.com). Where to start? For beginners:
The Voice of the Seven Sparrows (1922). For the more intrepid, The
Skull of the Waltzing Clown (1934). For the totally cocky, perhaps
Case trilogy (1936-1937) (now available from Ramble House as a
six-book set) or Strange Journey (1965). Or, if you want to
know more about Harry, Francis Nevins claims that The Mysterious
Mr. I (1938)/The
Chameleon (1940) (one novel in two volumes) is the most personal, The
Man Who Changed
His Skin (1959) is the best novel to understand Keeler's problematic
obsession with race, and The Face of the Man From Saturn (1933) is
the most political. As to which novel is the strangest, to my knowledge
has yet ventured a guess.
My theory about Keeler (theories abound) is that he developed
a mechanical fiction-writing procedure, originally intended to produce
marketable detective fiction with a "plot feel," and then discovered
that his procedure, if pushed, could produce unique and unmarketable
fiction with a truly peculiar feel.
Constraint and Fiction
My interest in Keeler grows out of a study of form and
constraint, and can be traced back to a serial poetry technique
based on 12-Tone Music called 20
Consonant Poetry I designed to challenge creative writing
students. My investigation of form and constraint in language
started with techniques that used as their formal basis the alphabet.
the palindrome, the anagram
are methods of constraining and filtering and shaping language based
on the spellings of words.
From the alphabet I proceeded up the layers
of language to structure words, phonetics (a
poem with only one vowel sound), grammar,
and on into the elements of story.
Moving from poetry into fiction, formal mechanics get slippery
in that it becomes progressively harder to empirically verify a structural
How might one formally
point of view, character development, or motivation, or relationships?
How can a ludic constraint be also lucid?
Canonical works of constrained novels seem to fall into two catgories:
constraints that are alphabetic and not
or novels known to be constrained but the constraints themselves are
unknown, as with many of the novels of Harry Mathews or Raymond Queneau.
Roussell, strange narratives are yielded by puns, so his most celebrated
constraints are phonetic, not narrative. Gilbert Sorrentino's Gold
Fools is written entirely in questions, a grammatic constraint.
Is it possible to push the definition of constraint one more level
into abstraction, and manipulate the building blocks of narrative?
In a story entitled Variations
on a Plot Curve, I took Freitag's Plot
and attempted to retell the same story with different dramatic
taking as a cue the music composition princliples of retrograde, inversion,
and retrograde inversion. The results of this experiment are not empirically
verifiable because the vertical axis on Freitag's chart represents dramtic
tension, which exists in the reader, not on the page the way the letter
e might be said to exist on the page.
In The Story That Teaches You
How To Write It, I used the theory of
metaphor as articulated by George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Mark Turner,
to create characters by designing each character's private metaphor system.
In one of the chapters, I modified a diagram by Gerard Genette representing
a passage by Proust to create a sequence of scenes in which the ratio
of historical time (time as the characters experience it) to story time
(number of pages) steadily decreases.
All fiction writers use structure and constraint in some ways, even
if generally not in the spirit of the Oulipo. The purpose of form in
fiction is to be invisible. Fiction writers also tend to speak of their
writing process in intuitive, passive terms: they put the characters
in the room together and see what they do. To speak this way about your
is to surrender your authority or at least to deny it: characters don't
do anything, the reader and writer do the doing. Is there
a way to describe the interaction of characters that is mechnical
and not psychological? When creating a character,
is the psychology you construct that of the character or the reader?
Where is the line between structuring the language and structuring
interpretation of it?
Unknown in Chicago, Keeler made plot his topic of investigation. His
idea of a beautiful novel resided in the complexity of its plot, and
followed highly specific rules to make his plots complex and yet, to
his mind, structurally sound. Keeler believed in an
infinity of possible stories and scoffs at those
who say there are only
a few basic plots. Keeler finds coincidence an acceptable, even
indispensable, element of the novel. The plots are complex machines that
turning deterministically to conserve and transmit energy. Keeler’s
plots are not flat maps. They are dynamic, in motion, a diagram
of a row of dominos
falling, playing pool and knocking in all the balls, eight ball last,
on the break, skull in the corner pocket. He has made the puzzle
Mechanics and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction is as lucid
of narrative as any I learned in the course of getting three degrees
in writing fiction. Keeler's stylistic indulgences tend to make his
impenetrable and strangely organized. The passage that might best be
considered the introduction occurs in section XXIII, when Keeler offers
what appears to be the philosophy behind web-work:
Aside from normal interest in dramatic happenings, is it not true that
in every human being
is a longing--an instinctive hunger--to believe that life, in its
great complexity and utter meaningless involvements, does move in a regulated
manner; that it is not all incoherent, all mixed up and utterly without
pattern, but that the whole thing is mathematically accurate in its
In How To Write A WebWork, I attempt
to distill Keeler's principles to the basic methods.
What the rules and diagrams don't express is that these diagrams represent
structured objects, and these objects are then enacted with characters
and objects. Sometimes he describes these schematics as wiring diagrams,
weavings, suspension bridges, eye muscles, or geodesic domes. Although
Keeler changes metaphors, I am convinced there is something solid and
visceral he can feel about
a well-constructed plot.
The web-work at times literally seems to quiver like a
sea of jelly. Every tap of the hammer makes a dozen changes necessary.
But gradually as both the story and plot develop together, it becomes
more and more stable, till finally it is as near perfect as it can
In other words, that the vertical axis of Keeler's schematics corresponds
to nothing is not an oversight. He requires that space to draw curves
to show the tension in the system. So one of the fundamental features
of the diagram is that which appears incidental: the curves. This is
why he does not simply connect the incidents with straight lines. The
curves show how the trajectories of the characters change as a result
of plot incidents.
Therefore, since our first space-and-time diagram has two disabilities,
first, that objects occupying the same space—or practically the
same space—at the same time will show as the same thread; and
second, that there exist changes in people's affairs which are not
occupancy of a succession of new areas, we will adopt a new expedient
of diagraming. We will retain plot-threads, and still continue to
allow their left-right extension to represent passage of time; but
utilize the up-and-down scope only for the purpose of showing by
means of knots or intersections where these plot threads come into
deviational relationships with each other.
And do not disregard that word "deviational."
For it is in that essential that a plot incident is a plot incident,
and deviation is the keynote of plot itself.
Nevermore, by Marie Redonnet
Drawn in response to reading the novel by William Gillespie, 2003
School for Performing and
Creative Arts, Cincinnati
On April 2nd, 2004, I taught two creative writing classes the basics
of web-work plot construction and enjoined them in the writing of two
collaborative web-work novellas.
Hobo Story, by William Gillespie
This story was designed purely to serve as a test of Keeler's methods
Keeler & Narratology
I don’t like reading Keeler’s fiction. Yet. It’s got
problems. To me. The arrhythmia. The relentlessly questionable style
choices. The race stuff, the race stuff, the race stuff.
and Kinematics of Web-Work Plot Construction then, do not interest
me as a method of writing like Keeler: I think they stand as a structural
analysis of plot that can be applied to all fiction. I think any story
or novel can be represented in a webwork schematic, even if it just
looks like a line. In many cases this will involve guesswork. In the
a complex time travel story or metafiction, you may have to do some
serious head-scratching and invent new notation. And in the case of
a large and
complicated novel, a webwork diagram might reveal the author’s
mistakes as well as their intentions. Either way, I believe such an
exercise would be instructive and would reveal aspects of the novel’s
structure otherwise difficult to pick up on. Especially if one were
a number of different well-read books such that their structures could
be compared at a glance.
A conventional detective novel, indeed all narrative by many definitions,
is bound by sequence. The story is a sequence of events in story
time, and the story telling is a sequence in which these events are revealed
to the reader. These two sequences do not have to correspond, as
author has recourse to flashforward or foreshadowing, flashbacks,
and any number of tricks. Narrative is a double helix of two interlocking
Keeler’s diagrams--encompassing chronology, causality, character,
and motivation—provide a model to analyze one half of the double
helix, that of the story independent of its telling. When you look down
on one of those schematics, though the events it represents are bound
by a sequence, you can study them as an object.
For example, in the The Voice of the Seven Sparrows, thanks to the
surviving webwork diagram,
we can see the story (the diagram) independently of
its telling (the novel), and speculate how the storytelling could have
been accomplished in any number of ways. Keeler chose to remain fixed
on a particular character as he moved through a portion of the story
(going forward in time), and the story was revealed through his encounters
with other characters who had access to parts of the diagram neither
the main character nor the reader otherwise had access to. But what
if the story were told in a different way? From multiple points of
Or in reverse chronology? Entirely in unattributed dialog? Without
the letter E or entirely in interrogative sentences? Through visual
with no narration? Or from the perspective of one of the other characters?
Well, since this is Keeler, we can guess that the story would be written
in excruciating racial gibberish if it were written from the perspective
of one of its characters, or in unattributed dialog. Let me put it
this way: what if the story were written by a different author?
To some extent, in the Voice, as in conventional detective fiction,
the reader is drawn into enigmas—questions the story poses that the
reader desires answered (closure),such that they feel compelled to continue
reading (in case they fail to surrender to the pure beauty of the prose).
But my sense is that Keeler’s enigmas, through their sheer density,
are hard to keep track of. Many surprising details are revealed, some
of the weirdest at the end--for example that four of the characters are
two of the characters each in disguise--but these peculiar gestures toward
clearing up confusion by resolving enigmas lack the satisfying clarity
of “the butler did it." In a conventional mystery story (which
I assume was the starting point for Keeler’s web-work genre), the
reader is engaged because the enigma is simple enough to second-guess,
and the author’s art sustains this guesswork while keeping the
enigma suspended. But the satisfaction of guessing what happens is utterly
denied to Keeler's readers. Instead of an “ah!” you get a “huh?” or
a “ha” or a groan or a “&^%$()*^#%!”
One aspect of the “ah!” I call retroactive correction.
When you discover the butler did it, you immediately want to reread the
because certain details that did not make sense or were forgettable
are now significant and you want to reexamine them in the light of the
interpretation your knowledge of the ending can bring to them.
A Keeler schematic makes it possible to construct a story independent
of its telling, in the manner a composer might compose a musical score
that is fixed independently of its performances. The Voice is
performance of his webwork diagram score. We could give that same score
to Paul Auster and ask him to perform the novel. We might even allow
the reader to be a part of the performance. In multisequential fiction
(such as hypertext fiction), the reader has a hand in choosing the
storytelling sequence. What happens to the “ah!” of the
surprise ending if the reader reads it first? To my knowledge, nobody
has properly interrogated
this question from a literary (rather than a Computer Science) perspective.
Because Keeler gives us the criteria for composing a novel in the form
of a score, in which every scene is essential to the structure of the
whole, his “web-work” schematics (which resemble hypertext
node-link flowcharts) provide insight into the possibility of writing
a multisequential fiction in which every scene, no matter which order
it is read in, provides unexpected information that might trigger a retroactive
correction of scenes read previously, regardless of what order they happen
in the original story.
Web-Work and Hypertext
Keeler's diagrams remind me of hypertext maps, for example those used
by Storyspace. Keeler's novels, usually told through a single perspective
in chronological order (although usually dense with, if not composed
entirely of, digressions and reminiscences) are not, in my opinion, hypertextual.
They are not only sequential but bound by sequence in order that they
may utterly confuse the reader, such that in a novel that appears to
be a whodunnit, the character who is the murderer might be introduced
on the last page, or such that, in a complicated mystery, it might be
revealed that four characters are actually two characters wearing clever
disguises, in the closing passages. Keeler's novels seem to involve suprise
endings, whether or not those endings are actually satisfying in a normal
However,in approaching the problem of writing multisequential fiction,
a problem that is will continue to be of interest for a long time, the
web-work diagrams suggest a solution.
Imagine that the threads are links and the intersections are texts,
scenes, nodes,pages, chapters, or chunks: bits of story. Because the
sturcture is so woven as to make every intersection integral to the composition
whole, it might be possible to write a multisequential web-work that
could sustain dramatic tension. The trick would be to write a hypertext
novel with a surprise ending no matter which chapter you read last.
The difference between a web-work plot diagram as applied to a print
novel versus one applied to multisequential fiction is that in a mutlisequential
web-work diagram, the reader does not follow a single character from
left to right, but can traverse the web in any direction following any
By way of demonstration, I have attempted to take some of the simple
forms Keeler calls Elemental Plot Constructions and found examples of
them in the hypertext novel The
An intersection between two plot threads causes a second
intersection. In 'detailsofwhich.htm,'
William meets Paul Auster at a party. They play shuffleboard, Auster
cheats, William accuses him of cheating, Auster becomes enraged,
forfeits the game, and William wins. Later, in 'denouement.htm,'
the two meet again to play Trivial Pursuit on supposedly friendly
terms. Paul Auster has rigged the deck of Trivial Pursuit cards.
The first incident has motivated the second. Auster, who hates losing,
has arranged a rematch for revenge. William, who respects Auster's
work, wishes to reconcile their differences and agrees to the Trivial
Dirk, William, & Scott have a breakdown in 'boston.htm.'
In rehab, Dirk is abducted by aliens, and taken into orbit ('inorbit.htm').
The aliens extract a writing sample from Dirk and take it to Thomas
Pynchon on the mothership. Pynchon, threatened by Dirk's powers, arranges
Dirk's assassination at the Y2K Party. Meanwhile, Scott realizes William
is having an emotional collapse, and witnesses his nearly-fatal bungie-jumping
accident in 'bungie.htm.'.
This causes Scott to organize the Y2K Party, to try to knit the Unknown
back together. Dirk's assassination at the stroke of the new millennium
results from both his abduction and William's bungie-jumping accident.