Triple Canopy May 2008

On Harry Stephen Keeler’s “web-work” mystery novels and the language and terrors of the Internet.

I met Ed Park at the Village Voice when he was editor of the Voice Literary Supplement, before both of our jobs were eliminated and the paper parted with nearly thirty members of its staff. Park’s new novel, Personal Days, which he began during his final year at the Voice, follows workers on the verge of unemployment, connected (and doomed) by their fondness for email. Few novels so elegantly capture the drama of the trivial, the lonely, laughable ways we pass our workdays—particularly the infinite distractions of the Web.

Park is a founding editor of The Believer, science-fiction columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and publisher of a weekly PDF publication called the New-York Ghost. The following interview was conducted by email over the course of two weeks in May.

RA: In the conversation that spawned this interview, you mentioned a little-known writer who, you later realized, had a secret influence on Personal Days: Harry Stephen Keeler, a mystery novelist who created and followed a mathematically ornate system of plot rules called “web-work.” Keeler believed that writers should be able to talk about plot in the same way that engineers talk about steam engines. And in his 1928 manual “The Mechanics (and Kinematics) of Web-Work Plot Construction,” he shows how:

In conceiving a story or inaugurating a plot which involves threads weaving with threads, if the thread A, or viewpoint character, should figure with the thread B in an opening incident of numerical order “n” (with respect to the incidents in the conditions precedent) there must be invented a following incident “n + 1” involving threads A and C; an incident “n + 2” involving threads A and D; an incident “n + 3” involving threads A and E; and so on up to perhaps at least “n + 4” or “n + 5”; and furthermore “n” must cause “n + 1”; “n + 1” must cause “n + 2”; “n + 2” must cause “n + 3” etc.

You once called web-work mysteries the “last great secret of 20th-century literature.” What initially drew you to Keeler’s work?

Ed Park: Keeler’s instructional manual (there is no other phrase) is either unreadable or fascinating, depending on how you approach it. It includes a diagram of his novel The Voice of the Seven Sparrows, with an illustration so hilariously convoluted that I sometimes think of the whole how-to enterprise as an enormous gag. His tone is pretty sober throughout, however, and he was addressing an audience of amateur writers eager to sell their wares. It’s his take on how to create not just a satisfyingly complex story but also one that would have a chance in the marketplace of the era.

If by some fluke I had come across “Mechanics” before reading Keeler, it’s hard to say whether I would have pursued his work. My immersion into Keeler was very gradual. I started, quite at random, with The Bottle with the Green Wax Seal (1942), which begins in medias res—if I remember correctly, there’s a character dressed like a mariachi who is seen briefly in an early chapter and then wanders off, never to be heard from again. I found appealing what some would call examples of “bad” writing. Keeler is forever being called the “Ed Wood of mystery novelists” or the “worst mystery novelist ever,” which are two very different things if you think, as I do, that Ed Wood was actually a very deliberate and canny artist.

The Bottle with the Green Wax Seal is the final book in a trilogy, and once I read the earlier books, Portrait of Jirjohn Cobb and Cleopatra’s Tears, it seemed an even more astonishing achievement: a whole trilogy that’s about talk, artifice—fiction, in capital letters. Each book provides the backstory to a prolonged climax in which several men are stranded on a slip of land about to disappear under rising floodwaters; there are enough life vests for all but one of the men, and since one of the party is actually a criminal, it’s decided that that person will be left to the waves. Who will have the most convincing alibi—or lie? It’s like Survivor avant la lettre, slow-motion reality TV. Richard Polt, a Heidegger scholar at Xavier University who started the Harry Stephen Keeler Society, is not a fan of Portrait, which he calls “one of the most astoundingly unreadable novels ever written.” (Per Polt, it “consists of four characters, two of whom sport outrageous accents, sitting on an island in the middle of a river, talking and listening to a radio, again for hundreds of pages.”) I see where he’s coming from, but to me, Portrait has one of the best things in all of Keelerdom: a moment in which a character has a revelation (is literally enriched) because he takes the time to stare at “bad” art—the titular portrait.

What was exciting for me wasn’t web-work, explicitly, but the fact that Keeler was trying to do something different with each book. You got the sense of a mind on fire, ceaselessly generating intricate plots and mind-boggling narrative devices. (A lot of Man with the Magic Eardrums takes place on the phone—just one side of the conversation!) At his height, Keeler was amazingly productive—four books out in 1930, and several years in which he had three out. The idea of insane productivity was an important element in my attraction to his work. I was writing novels—I’d just finished my second, the elaborate Dementia Americana, a portion of which was recently published online—and maybe I needed a new literary hero, whose MO consisted of high output and bizarre scenarios. I haven’t read Keeler in a couple years now, but I'll never forget encountering his work. It was as important to me as encountering Nabokov in college or Anthony Powell in my late twenties.1

RA: Did you feel you suffered from (or had the gift of) “insane productivity” yourself? What do you mean by the word insane

EP: For me, fiction writing requires giving in to the unconscious; more alarmingly put, hearing voices, falling into a trance, or even hallucinating. Which might be why Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of the Unconscious in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has had such a lasting hold on me. Jaynes’s audacious thesis—that early man did not possess consciousness—makes you ponder the very nature of an interior life. Why do we have two brain hemispheres, and why does everyone—writer or not—have the experience of silently talking to oneself, weighing options, narrating everyday life? Who is talking to whom?
Writing nonfiction is less dependent on such a state, but for fiction, for me, everything starts with a voice—I can have an idea for a story, but as much as I might try, the writing doesn’t flow until a voice materializes and I start taking dictation. (Later comes a very conscious process of shaping and thread weaving—but the shape and the threads, I’ve found, are secretly present from the start.) And having said that, now I’m thinking of Glottis, the dictation software in Personal Days. “Voice” works on a lot of levels in the book: the “whispery” italics in part 1; Crease losing his voice in the presence of his office crush; Laars suffering indignities of the teeth; the “misrecognitions” of Glottis creating huge, even life-changing complications. Stepping outside the book, I can connect “voice” to the Village Voice, where I worked for years, and from which I was ejected, erased.

So, in my twenties, I wrote two novels, responses to voices of different registers: Each voice had its particular rhythms, phrasings, punctuational preferences, and paragraph lengths. When Dementia Americana failed to draw any interest—it didn’t even make it onto any editors’ desks—I started thinking about a different kind of novel, one that did not rely on the convoluted conspiracies of the two unpublished books I now had (vaguely embarrassingly) under my belt. I “listened” to Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men, a book I’d recently read, which was hilarious without losing its cool. I could hear the chatter of my own characters, gradually coming into being, like an updated version of Powell’s. The first chapters of Afternoon Men became a blueprint for the start of this new book, which I called Chinese Whispers, the British term for our game of Telephone.

I felt I was writing something purely entertaining, a fizzy comedy set in New York among freelance artists of every sort; a young person’s novel at last. (The other two books feel like old people’s novels now.) The relative ease with which I wrote it made me think, “Ah, I’ve found my voice!”

In what is, I realize, a complete cliché, but true all the same, the book was never satisfactorily completed because of...9/11. After that day, I didn’t open the file for Chinese Whispers for a long, long time. When I finally did look at it, I didn’t know what to do with it. I would just close the file. Not only did I not finish writing Chinese Whispers, I didn’t feel much like writing a novel, period. Maybe—and this is nuts—my short fiction held a premonition. The few stories I wrote, beginning around the same time as Chinese Whispers, were already feeling disconnected from the real world. One story took place inside a brain. Another story, written in the summer of 2001, was set in a near-future Manhattan so ruined it was floating away.

I’ve often wondered about this sudden stoppage of novel writing, but before this conversation, I’d never thought of it in terms of Jaynes. I am about to grossly simplify his brilliant book and then apply it a bit too vigorously to my puny situation... In The Origin of the Unconscious in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes comes to many alarming conclusions, but they’re presented in such a way that they seem logical, even inevitable. He theorizes that humankind, circa three thousand years ago, did not have what we would think of as consciousness. Instead, people in ancient civilizations would, in times of stress, hallucinate the voices of their gods. The right hemisphere—the god hemisphere—would tell the person what to do, how to act.

And one of the factors that bring modern consciousness into being is when the gods no longer speak to them. This “breakdown of the bicameral mind” is attributed to a variety of causes, one of which is the friction between distinct bicameral civilizations. (Jaynes has other reasons, but I’m just latching on to this one for my purposes.) After a string of catastrophic events, goes the theory, the gods’ voices start to go mute.

If you can follow my extrapolations and contortions: In a single day, the voice that I was hearing for that book suddenly became irrelevant, or worse. So not only did that particular voice shut down, but my whole calling (another interesting word, given the notions of voice and hearing that we’re using) seemed suspect. Before 9/11, I wrote relatively little nonfiction (articles, reviews)—my energies were focused on novel writing. Afterward, I began editing more and more at the Voice and, in 2003, The Believer. I was writing things that people actually read—no longer talking to myself.

If I thought about this development at all back then, I assumed that it was simply a function of time, a gradual process, gaining the trust of editors. Which is true. But it only became clear much later the degree to which my fiction/nonfiction output had dramatically switched proportions: I had worshiped at the altar of fiction and then suddenly abandoned it. But what I’m suggesting, here, is that maybe it was the voice that abandoned me.

RA: September 11 also coincides, very roughly, with the point at which the Internet became a steady part of working life. This, too, was an event that changed the “voices” one might respond to—and, certainly, our notions of productivity.
EP: Conveniently, last week there was a blurb in the New York Times for a reading that I did, in which the writer poked fun at my productivity. I thought it was funny and appreciated the plug, but I was also shocked that anyone took notice. I feel like I am very busy these days—but I’ve felt busy for years. Even when I wasn’t writing articles, even before The Believer, I was writing and writing and writing—hundreds of pages that, I’m sure, no one will see.

But this was before the blogosphere. If I were a young aspiring novelist today, would I have the patience for solitude—a space to try and fail, in virtual secrecy—or is it too tempting to look for a more immediate, interactive readership online? I’m forever coming across things like “Samuel Pepys would have been a blogger,” or Kerouac or whoever—which is fine as a parlor game, but seems to ignore the fact that the technology of the diary or novel (or whatever pre-Web platform we’re talking about) generates its own specific geniuses and champions. Pepys putting his entries directly on the Web, in real time: Who’s to say that he would have done that? It’s one thing to think that writing is writing, another to assume that formats are interchangeable and mindsets from days of yore can simply be plugged into the present.

RA: In Personal Days, much of the dialogue takes place online, and it’s frequently about computers: whose laptop crashed, emails that colleagues foolishly forwarded, the best way to sign off (“Warm best,” “Cheers,” “Thank you in advance for your cooperation”), or “keyboard woes.” The novel ends with a fifty-page email that never finds its recipient.
I’m reminded of an email conversation we had a few years ago about Julian Jaynes. We were both complaining about our difficulty concentrating, and you joked that you were beginning to see the Web as a “model brain”:

what you were saying about your mind flying around—that was what I was like yesterday: constant, almost reflexive web-searching, email checking, blogging. It was kind of fascinating and a little scary, & it lasted for hours...the various “distracting” activities on the web—email, blogging, searching—are maybe a metaphor for the mind? So for a while I thought that I was existing in some weird state of pure though—like every “thought” I had would trigger a new screen, new site; it was instantaneous.... (Julian Jaynes would say that each age/era/setting provides the necessary physical metaphors for consciousness.)

When writing now, how difficult is it to accommodate, or resist, what Jaynes might view, grandly, as an entirely new metaphor for thinking?

EP: I remember an exchange in The Believer between Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, and I recall one of them saying something about not allowing such things as computers, cell phones, the Web, etc. to enter the universe of his novel. And I can sympathize with that. These new technologies bring their own unsettling charges, tones, and auras, and if a writer has already honed his voice, so to speak, to a world predating the noise of the new machines, there might be a sense of having to start at square one.
Many novels include email exchanges (off the top of my head, The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and On Beauty, by Zadie Smith), and I remember seeing many short novels around the turn of the twenty-first century that seemed to consist entirely of such exchanges, in a bid to represent what the epistolary novel would mean today. But I don’t recall any of that latter class of novels and can’t imagine that people still read them. They have somehow become obsolete.

On the other hand, Richard Powers “performed” an amazing text called “The Moving Finger” that seemed to me absolutely attuned to the new frequency of the monitor-lit insomnia of the blogosphere. He found the right metaphors: The narrator slips into the blogosphere in search of information on “mirror neurons” and soon finds himself being nightmarishly mirrored on a blog that possibly only he checks. (It’s the atmosphere of Borges, of course; I suspect Borges would know how to write about the Web, though this might be another example of Ye Olde Blogger Pepys Fallacy.)

I was thinking about my novella that went online last week at Fivechapters.com—it was written in 1998 and pokes fun at satellite TV’s surfeit of surfable channels and a little bit at cell phones. Not a word about the Web, and this more than anything else dates it. TV I could understand; I grew up with TV, so satellite TV is just an extension of that. Cell phones I could understand: Hey, I’ve talked on phones all my life. But the experience of the Web wasn’t clear to me then. I emailed and, via what sounded like a hand-cranked dial-up modem, could arduously visit what primitive sites there were back then, but I didn’t really have a framework for thinking about it, imagining it, inserting it into the fiction, or somehow using its energies and language and terrors. I’d yet to grasp (how many did, in ’98?) what our experience with it would be, that it would move at the speed of thought and seem to allow you to encompass the world.

RA: In an earlier email, you wrote that you don’t like to think of yourself as the type of person who worries about computers assuming too much agency, since this is a “primitive” fear. Why is it so hard to write about computers—the language of the Web and resulting paranoia—without veering into the territory of mystical science fiction?

EP: Novelists resist including the Web because it seems to subsume or supersede the book. It is fast by design, whereas the book is slow. The Internet can reproduce the content of a book—think of a site like Bartleby.com; the novel strains to capture how one traverses the Web. (Of course, reading off a screen is a different experience from turning a page, but I wonder if, for most readers, this has become a moot point.) There are fictions that conjure the flavor (the online quest for mysterious footage in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition), and something like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves has a vigorously multitasking structure. But in the end, it’s a physical impossibility, matter versus light.

Writing a novel is still a solitary activity, a monument to ego. To be faced with a new medium in which authorship barely matters, information flows everywhere, and context changes constantly is to be confronted with the dissolution of an entire form. Who wants to write a novel about how the novel is disappearing?

RA: Right now, I am looking at the catalogue blurb for your NYU course, “Only Connect”:

The late W.G. Sebald perfected a sublime art of connection—teasing out associations between ancient snapshots, newspaper clippings, and the words of others. His elegantly haunting books (which blurred novel, history, and memoir) couldn’t be more different from that typically found in the so-called blogosphere. Yet blogging, with its hyperlinks and screen-grabs, calls upon a magpie instinct that Sebald and other illustrious writers would instantly recognize. This course takes students on a tour of writing methods as old as The Anatomy of Melancholy and as current as Gawker, imparting a ravenous approach to composition useful for work in any genre: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and the borderlands of our virtual reality.

To even mention Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy and Gawker in the same breath suggests there is something productive about transposing one era’s literary metaphors onto those of another. But the analogy, even if it works, goes in only one direction: Burton may have been a master Googler, but it’s unlikely the Gawker girl in a tank top on the cover of the Times Magazine would have produced The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Why did you choose to isolate this particular skill through the ages, the impulse to scavenge and make links? This is an aspect of writing we usually take for granted.

EP: That was my first time teaching—look at me giving students the hard sell: “Robert Burton and Gawker? Hold on to your hats!” (I’ve since dropped the Gawker reference.) One thing I’m cultivating in this class is the art of the notebook, which is the art of observation. The subtext of the class is, How can you employ what’s all around you in order to create an original work of art? To me, there’s something creative in coming across the same unusual word twice in one day, or noticing (as Lawrence Weschler does) the ramifying parts of an eye in the image of a map of the Internet. How do things become metaphors for other things? It’s the writer, the artist, the human who makes it so. I always show my students these two quotes—a warning against referential mania, or perhaps just notes toward an aesthetic:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”

—H. P. Lovecraft