I’ll admit that I’ve never quite gotten the fuss over Houdini. Does there really need to be another book about him? That said, having enjoyed both The Cellist of Sarajevo and Ascension by Steven Galloway, I gave The Confabulist (Knopf Canada, 2014) a shot and I’m glad I did.
The Confabulist contains stories within stories. We meet our narrator, Martin Strauss, in present day where he is given a final, unhappy diagnosis by his doctor. Martin is losing his memory and it will soon by gone entirely, replaced with artificial memories. Moments that will seem completely real to Martin will never have actually occurred.
And so, he tells us his story. The day he met Harry Houdini and the day he killed Houdini.
Making up the bulk of the novel is Houdini’s story. His rise to fame, his wife, his mother, his travels, his efforts to debunk spiritualists and mediums. Everything that leads him to the day he met Martin Strauss, as told to us by Martin.
This is key, of course. Houdini’s story is inter-spliced with Martin’s, both in the present day and Martin in 1927, following Houdini’s death. In the ’20s, Martin was a poor young student in Montreal. He drank a little more than he should have, he was fascinated by magicians, and he loved a girl named Clara. Then he kills Houdini and his whole life changes. Throughout the novel, this moment is set-up as the turning point of Martin’s life, the reason everything happens next. But our glimpses at Martin’s life in the present day cause the reader to increasingly doubt the accuracy of Martin’s memories. Is what he tells of Houdin’s life true? Did he really kill Houdini? Who is Alice? A simple history becomes a mystery story and a message on the frailty of human memory.
Galloway tells the story of Houdini’s life, wrapping fact and fiction together artfully. We watch Houdini’s development as both a magician and a man. His rise to fame, some of his most famous escapes and tricks, and his backroom dealings. Out of a real life person, Galloway creates a character with depth and emotion until I didn’t much care what was truth and what was fiction. We witness Houdini’s constant desire to please his mother. His combined love and frustration for his wife, Bess. His moral struggle with tricks that prey on the griefs and fears of others and his subsequent vehement attempts to discredit and ban spiritualism.
These attempts becomes central to the plot of the novel, bringing characters together in a web of secrets and deceits. This was a struggle that Houdini really did engage in, at a time when mediums often held a lot of power, through the manipulation of those in authority. We witness Houdini’s dealings with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Romanov family, and Margery Crandon, the witch of Beacon Hill. Into these historical encounters, Galloway weaves a fictional account that becomes surprisingly convincing, until the reader can’t be sure what’s true and what’s made up. Which is precisely where Martin Strauss’ memory has brought him.
In the end, despite turning up my nose at another Houdini story, I found the Houdini sections of the novel more interesting than Martin’s. Houdini’s story takes us all over the world, into secrets gatherings and behind the curtain of some of the most famous magic tricks. It isn’t until further into the novel that the clues of Martin’s life begin to come together to reveal an entirely different secret.
I was spellbound.