Steven Galloway’s Houdini is as stageworthy as the man himself. And Martin Strauss, the man who killed Houdini, is his own elusive character. The Confabulist is a great story about magic, illusion, and escape artists.
I’m a fan of Steven Galloway so in many ways I felt predisposed to liking The Confabulist. I found it as page-turning as I remember Finnie Walsh being, on par topic wise with Ascension, and the style of writing as intriguing as The Cellist of Sarajevo.
Having recently read Bruce MacNab’s nonfiction account of Houdini and Bess’ tour of the Maritimes in The Metamorphosis, a lot of the Houdini stories seemed very familiar to me. But that’s the wonderful thing about celebrities. The general public can revel in thinking we know a lot about a person who quite often portrays a public persona that is quite different than the private one.
What I love about Galloway’s novel is that fiction lets us speculate more freely about the private persona.
Houdini was a great showman and certainly understood marketing and publicity. He was one of the most photographed men of his time and even though he died in 1926 (the first time *wink*) I feel like I’ve seen him perform.
Houdini and Magic
The famous and infamous are always fascinating, especially entertainers. Frank Sinatra, for example, is so lauded but also many say ol’ blue eyes wasn’t a nice guy. These men at the top of their game need such an ego to perform, I’m sure that if they don’t start out nasty, as Julia says, they develop that as a coping mechanism. What I like about Galloway’s version of Houdini is that he gives us the entertainer and a version of the man behind the scenes. Both are inventions.
Houdini invented himself: the name, the act, everything. And that’s the great American promise, that you can come from nothing and build your fortune. What a perfect illusion.
Speaking of invention and illusions, there’s something uncanny about Houdini. His life is a lovely dichotomy. He spent 26 years in the 19th century with horse and buggy, telegrams and struggling to make a name for himself and then 26 years in the 20th century with automobiles, telephones, radio and riches and celebrity.
The technological advances alone must have seemed like magic to people. Then for a magician as practiced in slight of hand and flexibility as Houdini to use that technology in his act, it must have been a double whammy for the audience. Oh, the great power! No wonder the spiritualists were excited.
Memory, Madness and Conspiracy Theories
I have a fondness for fools who speak the truth, everything from the characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the jesters in Shakespearean plays. So Martin Strauss has my ear from the beginning of the novel when he introduces himself and the fact that the constant ringing of tinnitus can lead the afflicted, not that he is, to madness and suicide. What an opening!
Speaking of opening, the epigraph is from Aldous Huxley, “Every man’s memory is his private literature.” The more I thought about that, the more interested I became in Martin. Houdini is his own creation. He’s telling himself stories about who he is. So is Martin.
In the grocery store parking lot, Martin can’t unlock the door to his car. That’s because it’s not his car. Indeed, he’s never owned a green Chevrolet yet he has a clear memory of pulling into the lot and parking that particular car. He says that he tries to dismiss these small incidents but that they come with a memory, a recollection that he knows is false but which seems real.
Sometimes we tell stories that we makeup about ourselves. I’ve experienced that with jokes. A funny incident happened to me and one night at a party, my husband retold the story as if it happened to him! Well, he said, it sounds better in the first person. Houdini has showmanship as the reason behind his stories (as well as affairs that he wants to protect Bess from), but why does Martin fabricate his identity? Do we tell these stories and alter our memories because of something we are proud of or because of something we are ashamed of, or likely both?
When it comes to conspiracies, Houdini seems both proud of and ashamed of his participation with the CIA. The mystery and intrigue and prestige that is awarded him plays into the persona he’s creating, and yet it comes with its own faults and secrets that can’t be shared.
I don’t want to spoil the mystery and intrigue of Martin’s character, but there are so many great quotes so I’ll try to choose one that doesn’t reveal too much. He’s talking to Alice about confabulations and why certain false memories are so persistent and he says, “nothing is in the past for me. Because I remember it in the present, it’s in my head right now, though it’s always reconstructed. And reconstructions can’t be trusted. I can’t be trusted. None of us can.”
I love characters who warn us poor readers not to believe them.
The female characters in The Confabulist really have supporting roles to our two stars, Houdini and Martin Strauss. In the case of Houdini, it’s steadfast Bess who knows Harry’s signs both on stage and off. He trusts Bess above all others and it’s Bess who sticks with him. She seems secondary both to the act and to the story Galloway is telling. For Martin, the girl is Clara but he mistrusts her love and doesn’t stick with her. Clara is also secondary to the act of Martin punching Houdini on that ill-fated night in Montreal. Then there’s Alice, who is the audience for the story that Martin is telling about his encounter with Houdini and the events that led to him killing Houdini, twice.
There are similarities though too. Both men idolize their mothers. There are two beautiful scenes in the novel about the death of a mother. The first is Houdini saying farewell to his mother when he sets sail for Europe, and the grief he experiences upon learning of her death shortly after. The second is Martin consoling Alice when he learns that her mother is dead. “Being a parent is a monumental thing. You shape reality for another person. You cannot be an illusion … If you have done a good job, what remains is the part of you that was magical.” I thought that was a lovely thought but also curious because “if you have done a bad job, or no job at all, what remains of you is proof that the world is an unfeeling place.”
Both men idolize their mothers, and those mothers appear magical to them, but they also treat the world as if it is an unfeeling place. They are mistrusting of the outside world, they have one-night affairs, and they have illusions and disillusions about politics, women, and life in general. These are strange men and they make for interesting characters, which is perhaps why the women in the novel don’t take centre stage.
Loved the book.
The Confabulist by Steven Galloway
Published by Knopf
Vancouver Sun Book Club Chat with Steven Galloway