The Confabulist by Steven Galloway

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Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell.

Interest in the great magician and escapologist Harry Houdini seems to be undergoing a revival lately. Christopher Sandford wrote a book about the feud between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the latter’s belief in spiritualism; a mini-series called, what else, Houdini, starring Adrien Brody has recently shown on TV; and magician-mentalist Derren Brown’s latest show ‘Infamous’ has a whole section of Houdini-homage based on so-called medium’s tricks for starters.

Now we can add Steven Galloway’s latest novel to the list. The Confabulist is the story of Houdini, as told by the man who killed him twice.

As the novel starts, Martin Strauss has just been told by his doctor that he has a condition that will cause him to lose his mind. ‘The good news is that it will be gradual, and you likely won’t even notice.’ Strauss realises that he must tell his full story to Alice before his memory goes forever.

The novel will alternate between Strauss telling Houdini’s story and that of his own involvement. He briefly tells of the Houdini’s struggle to get established, and his tempestuous relationship with his wife Bess.

‘They hadn’t been married even a year when they found out they couldn’t have children. Bess’s ovaries were underdeveloped, the doctor said. It was all Houdini could do not to punch him in the face. He’d expected Bess to go into hysterics but she sat dead faced. Later when he’d tried to talk to her about it, she gave him that look again; and in the years since, they’d never spoken of that day or of children. But the memory was always there.’

Galloway’s use of the word ‘hysterics’ with all its Freudian (and other) associations with female sexual dysfunction is just one small example of the care taken in his writing. It shows how impeccable his research for this novel was.

Galloway, through his narrator, charts Houdini’s rise to fame and chronicles some of his most famous exploits from making the silenced Kremlin bells ring for the Tsar (under the watchful eyes of Rasputin) to his famous jailbreaks and the challenge by the London Daily Mirror in 1904 to escape from a pair of handcuffs which had been designed to defeat him. These events are well chronicled, and we learn as much as is necessary about the mechanics of the illusions to draw us along.
What I wasn’t aware of was that Houdini helped (and was helped by) the secret service who opened up avenues for him in return for information on his travels. Later in his career, came Houdini’s spat with Doyle, and his obsession with debunking spiritualists who appeared to him to be taking over politics in his adopted country.

Ever the showman, he continued, until he was stopped by a sucker punch which he hadn’t prepared for, and died from a ruptured appendix, or so the story goes. Strauss, our narrator, tells us that he was the man who delivered the fatal punch. Strauss, is obviously a man who has studied and is obsessed by magicians and illusion, he tells us how he has read hundreds of books about them over the years. He feels he understands their art:

“A magician is an actor playing a magician.” Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, Houdini’s namesake, wrote this. … At first I thought he was merely talking about showmanship or stage presence, but it’s a bigger idea. Unless the magician has supernatural powers, unless what he does alters the workings of the known universe, then all we witness is a man pretending to be a magician. Everything is an illusion.

Of course, knowing that it’s an illusion makes us collude with the actor-magician, then when we can’t work out how he did it … we can’t help wondering if it is magic. Being a big fan of Derren Brown, I’m totally stumped by his seemingly supernatural mental trickery.

Strauss continues to wax lyrical about his own life, but then wonders whether he should ‘start to keep progress reports, like Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon.’ (The one SF book that I would challenge all haters of the genre to read and not be moved by).

As you’ll have surmised by now, Strauss is a classic unreliable narrator – how much of his story is true, how much is confabulation?

It can be a tricky line to tread in making a real-life person one of the main players in a novel. If liberties with the documented record are taken, the author risks their work being derided for being not how it happened. This is where Galloway’s device of having an unreliable narrator tell a story about a real person allows him to get away with it.

Galloway’s Houdini is a fascinating character and not without his faults; in fact there are many, including infidelity and being completely driven to succeed on his terms, and I wondered why Bess stayed with him. It will be interesting to read more about the real man and his life, and see if I can spot more of the joins between fact and fiction. However, the enormous ego of the celebrity magician is complemented neatly by the poignant story of Martin Strauss and his memories, and the two come together in a suitably dramatic ending of which I can’t divulge more.

This novel is quite magical, and exquisite in its execution of the illusions it weaves. Highly recommended.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books Editors, and knows that this kind of magic is just smoke and mirrors but still likes to be taken in by the illusion.

Steven Galloway, The Confabulist (Atlantic Books, London, 2014) 978-782393993, Paperback original, 304 pages.

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