Knopf Canada, 2014
Softcover, 301 pages
Martin Strauss’s story does not begin well. We first meet the protagonist of Steven Galloway‘s splendid new novel, The Confabulist, as he sits listening to his doctor tell him he has been diagnosed with a degenerative physiological condition which, although it will not impair his cognitive function, will gradually interfere with his brain’s ability to create, store and access memories. As a result, his doctor explains, his brain will create false memories to fill the void, and he may not even be aware of the process. In short, Martin will become a confabulist, the psychiatric term for this condition. If one considers that identity is, really, the story one tells oneself about one’s past, and therefore, utterly dependent on memory, it’s clear that Martin is about to become a fiction, even to himself. He is, also, about to become the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Martin is ambivalent, at best, about his memories, not at all certain that forgetting is a bad thing. His life has been, he admits, “a mixed bag,” a large portion of it spent trying to rectify a “stupid” mistake made as a young man, and there are secrets perhaps better kept than revealed. In the end, however, he determines that the mysterious Alice deserves to know the unobscured truth, because, he confesses, he was responsible for depriving her of a father. The immediate juxtaposition of this confession with the further declaration that he is the man who killed Harry Houdini, not once, but twice, invites a somewhat befuddled reader to assume that Alice is Houdini’s daughter, and that Martin’s involvement with Houdini’s death is the mistake which seems to have knocked his life off course.
The premise of Martin’s story, requires, of course, that Houdini himself, join the narrative. It was at this point that I found myself, as a reader, growing testy. Houdini? Again? Really? Have we not milked this story dry? Can we not let the poor man rest in peace? However, all qualms dissipated soon after I (rather grumpily) in the interests of thoroughness, immersed myself in some obligatory Houdini research. Dead some eighty-plus years, Erich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini, still stares from his photographic images with mesmerizing intensity, and his story still captivates. I stand corrected. Houdini’s mystique, it seems, is infinite.
Through a series of flashbacks, Galloway provides the background of both Martin and Houdini’s story up until the point they intersect. The essential, known facts of Houdini’s life are used as a framework on which to build an intimate (although fictional) portrayal of his early years as a struggling magician, devoted son and young husband. With rather miraculous concision, Galloway provides us a portrait of some depth and fascination, focusing, particularly, on Houdini’s tricky, but also devoted, relationship with his wife, Bess, their childlessness, and his determination to fulfill a promise made to his dying father, to provide for his mother. Of particular import is a fateful day in 1897, when as a young magician, Houdini and his stage partner Bess agree to orchestrate a spiritualism stunt which convinces a grieving young father and mother that their dead child’s spirit has survived. Horrified by the results of their deception and the desperate grief they have exploited, the Houdini’s swear off spirit tricks. Indeed, the real (like the fictional) Houdini became well known later in life as a ferocious opponent of the spiritualist movement, and devoted considerable time and effort to debunking fraudulent mediums and magicians who implied their powers were anything more than human, a vocation which put him at odds with a number of prominent proponents of spiritualism, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Martin’s early story is somewhat less exalted. He, like Houdini, was quite devoted to his mother, but seems to remember his father as a cold, distant parent, who had little use for children. He suffers from strikingly low self-esteem, professing to be mystified as to what his mother saw in him. A move to Montreal, to study at McGill, seems, initially, to be a positive step for Martin, whose anxieties seem to lessen as the distance between him and his father increases. There, he finds a friend and drinking buddy, the independently wealthy Will Riley, a circumstance which eventually leads to him meeting Clara, a young woman who (again, inexplicably, as far as Martin is concerned) seems to like him, and with whom he shares an interest in magic, and, in particular, Houdini. It becomes clear, however, that Martin’s drinking has become more than casual, and that his habit of dissembling may have obscured the real situation. In any case, a much anticipated chance to take Clara to see a performance by Houdini (tickets courtesy of Will) is almost lost to what appears to be a massive hangover, an anxiety attack, or some combination of the two, possibly precipitated by undisclosed news in a letter from his father, a man who “wasn’t one to write.” Tension is heightened, of course, by the readers’ awareness of Martin’s claim to have been the man who killed Houdini.
The evening begins well. Houdini’s performance is spectacular, and, during intermission, Martin and Clara manage their first sexual encounter in an unguarded coatroom. Returning to the rest of the performance, however, Martin has a premonition that he has done something that cannot be undone, and believes he can sense a change in Clara. From this point on the evening devolves into the equivalent of an anxiety dream. In the crush of the exiting crowd, Martin loses sight of Clara and cannot find her again. Confused and panicky, insecurities never far from the surface, Martin immediately suspects her odd disappearance may be connected to their tryst. Returning to meet his friend at the theatre after an unsuccessful attempt to intercept Clara on her way home, a dejected Martin is twice astounded — first to find Will in conversation with the great Houdini himself, and second, to find that Clara had been there all along, waiting at a prearranged meeting place and wondering what had become of him. As a confused Martin himself admits, “It didn’t make sense completely…” Just as the reader is beginning to suspect that this first intersection of Martin and Houdini’s histories is a false alarm, Martin, acting on some mysterious impulse, perhaps incited by the reappearance of his father’s letter, strikes Houdini in the gut, without warning. Martin is thrown out of the theatre, retreats into seclusion and, within days, Houdini is dead.
From this point on, Martin’s story becomes increasingly fantastical. Prompted, apparently, by a mysterious anonymous warning, and his wish to protect Clara, he pulls a vanishing act of his own, gone from the city in less than an hour, to lead the boardinghouse existence of an itinerant casual labourer. Plagued by anxiety and paranoia, his version of reality grows more and more bizarre, culminating in late night visions of Alice, whom he identifies as Houdini’s daughter, demanding answers, a conspiracy involving Russian aristocracy, prominent spiritualists, international espionage, secret coded messages, and the surprising revelation that Houdini is not dead, but only in hiding. It all reaches a fiery climax when Martin confronts Houdini in his hideout, looking for the answers Alice needs, and, in a life-and-death showdown, as he had earlier insisted, kills Houdini a second time.
Insight into the depths of this remarkable novel is provided in its opening lines, in which Martin describes his condition, likening it to tinnitus — where non-existent sound provides a constant background hum in the ears of sufferers. Confabulation is not precisely the same, as he explains,
but I have strange feeling now and then that something wrong is going on in the background.
Readers will experience a similar phenomenon. First, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Houdini story (or access to Google) will be troubled by the fact that, although the particulars of his death seem to approximate the real story, the McGill student who punched Houdini unexpectedly, and perhaps contributed to his death of peritonitis secondary to a ruptured appendix, was named J. Gordon Whitehead, not Martin Strauss. Even though one knows the account is fictionalized, other details are reasonably faithful to the factual history. And so, this seems…odd. Although Martin has explained that he wants to record his history while he is still able, because he owes this much to Alice, it is well to wonder how accurate a judge of his ability he might be. As Martin himself warns us,
I can’t be trusted. None of us can.
As the apparent facts surrounding the entanglement of the two men’s stories become more and more strange, and the reader is able to glean more hints about Martin’s past, one is slowly able to intuit that what is actually going on in the background is the struggle of Martin’s real story to emerge — the one he has hidden, evaded, forgotten, and, finally, falsely reconstructed. This reconstruction, one comes to understand, is anchored by a framework of associative intersections with the Houdini story, a story he was quite familiar with as a result of a childhood fascination with magic. The fact that the truth is always an underlying presence, manifesting in Martin’s mother’s voice, in Alice’s nocturnal visitations, and in secret coded messages from Houdini’s notebook, makes it difficult to define the precise boundaries between Martin’s disease and his denial.
A straightforward revelation of the “real” situation would make this discussion so very much easier, but the power of this story resides, in large part, in the slow stumble towards clarity that one experiences as one tries to decide what one can believe and what one must discard, of Martin’s account, and to discover what it is that he is hiding. In this process, one is forced to stretch for connections, peer into the murk for outlines, perceive form in the swirling fog, until, miraculously, the truth gradually begins to emerge in muted, low relief, like a figure from a vat of melted chocolate. One comes to see that Martin’s confabulist memory is based, not on chronology and facts, but on symbol, association, and the elision that has occurred in his mind between the connotative cloud of association around Houdini’s life — secrets, magic, vanishing acts, illusion, childlessness and lost children, mothers, absent fathers, constructed personae, and deception — and the details of his own history. Truth and confabulation intersect in the realm of metaphor. Thus, when Martin kills Houdini a second time, he is, in fact, finally destroying his own inner magician — and confronting the truth of his life.
Ultimately, this tale is an examination of deception in all its multitudinous manifestations, and each narrative thread circles this central concern. There is the straightforward and, as Houdini feels, honest deception of the performing magician, the deceptiveness of memory, the more nefarious trickery of the sham spiritualists, the high stakes, and shadowy sleight of hand of professional espionage, and the far subtler, and thus more disturbing, art of deception which we, as human beings, practice upon ourselves. Buried in the story, as well, is a profound meditation on reality, our ability to perceive it, and then capture it in memory, and the consequences of this for our identity. As Martin notes,
a percentage of our lives is a fiction. There’s no way to know whether anything we have seen or experienced is real or imagined.
How can we know who we are if we can’t be certain who we’ve been?
Finally, Galloway explores the timeless appeal of magic and its relationship to that great, and inconvenient truth — death. Magic is for us, as it was for Martin, the only way around that rather unattractive reality.
This is a dark and complex marvel of a novel, one that will continuously reward rereading. One can only wonder at Galloway’s ability to control, so deftly, all of the forces set loose in its pages, and to, in the end, create such a truthful illusion.