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Creating Harry Houdini
Martin Strauss makes some extraordinary claims at the beginning of Steven Galloway’s ‘The Confabulist,’ and like all such declarations, they require extraordinary proof. With Steven Galloway, Martin Strauss and novel’s focal point, Harry Houdini, you’re in precisely the right company to obtain it. Galloway’s novel manages to be a tense, imaginative historical thriller while simultaneously being a poignant mediation about love and loss.
The title of the novel suggests how it’s possible to reconcile such opposing literary notions. Confabulation is what happens when memories are blurred and the imagination supplies supposed facts to fill in the blanks. As we meet Martin Strauss, he’s not in the best shape. Suffering from tinnitus, and racked with guilt, he claims to have met Harry Houdini. Before we can blink our eyes, Galloway introduces us to Houdini, and the novel rockets forward and backward through Houdini’s life and Martin’s.
Galloway is a master of modulating his prose to keep it appropriate to the task at hand. His re-creations of historical events are transparent third-person narratives that are crisp, clear and exciting. Martin Strauss’s passages create tension and pathos as he tries to remember what he claims to have experienced. Galloway has the poetry to be lyrical, the power to create an intense propulsive narrative and the writerly wisdom to know how and when to move from one to the other.
The two main characters here, Strauss and Houdini, are magnificently conceived and equally well executed. Galloway crafts Strauss as a man whose cloud of self doubt never gets in the way of a muscular self-importance. Houdini is rather the opposite, a man whose constant certainty is undercut by his understanding that nobody, not even the great Houdini, can be right all the time. Moreover, much of the joy of the book comes from seeing Houdini create himself as a character. It is quite appropriate that, in a book about Houdini, we experience a sort of hall of narrative mirrors.
The reflections don’t end with the characters, but extend into the plot as well. The Strauss story has some echoes in the Houdini story that it encompasses, and both play with and undermine our sense of history. Suffice it to say that Galloway has clearly done his research with regards to writing about Houdini’s life in manner that is both historically accurate but imaginatively entertaining as well.
‘The Confabulist’ ultimately proves itself to be something of a magic trick, one that will play with the memories of everyone who reads it. None of us will come away with the same story, or the same memories of reading the same words. But there’s- no doubt that magic, real or imagined takes place. And the difference between magic, real and imagined is, if not negligible, at least negotiable. As readers, we have the power to choose which words to read between and what to put there.