The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway


Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Steven Galloway struck a responsive chord with both critics and readers with his most recent novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008). In that book, he started with a real incident: a bomb attack in the destructive Yugoslavian war that killed 22 people waiting in a bread line and the decision by a cellist to return to the scene for 22 days in a row and play Albinoni’s Adagio as a memorial to mourn their fate.

While that well-known, and evocative, event provided the over arching framework, Galloway’s attention was devoted to three “ordinary” individuals and how they were influenced by the conflict. One was Kenan; his story concerned his dangerous weekly walk through the conflict to fetch water for his family. A second thread was the story of Dragan and his equally threatening trek to a free meal. And the third was “Arrow”, the pseudonym for a talented female sniper whose task was to protect the cellist and his memorial concerts from a hidden sniper.

The novel worked very well — it explored the way that destructive conflict has a profound effect on those who have the misfortune to be living where it takes place, even if they have no direct involvement in the hostilities and are just trying to get on with life.

In his latest novel, The Confabulist, Galloway has again returned to a well-known real story: the life and, more importantly, death of illusionist Harry Houdini, arguably the most famous person in the world at his prime. That death came from a ruptured appendix, perhaps the result of an incident in Montreal where a visitor to his dressing room punched him several times in the abdomen, testing a kind of urban legend that said Houdini was immune to that kind of attack.

There is a key difference in this volume however. While The Cellist of Sarajevo focused on the stories of three individuals who were impacted by the central event, in this one author Galloway’s interest is in three story lines which he speculates came together to create the “event”.

Magicians are clever. They understand that a magic trick is all about turning illusion into substance in such a way that we never fully comprehend what happened, or what we think happened. They know that a trick loses its power once we understand how it was done, and also that it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done.

There are four elements to this grand tug-of-war between substance and illusion. There is effect, there is method, there is misdirection, and finally, when it’s all over, there is reconstruction. Magic is a dance between these four elements. The actor playing a magician seeks to choreograph a way through the trick with these component parts. If he does so, he will have achieved magic. If not, he is a failure.

The author uses those paragraphs to introduce an explanation that extends for some pages (and quite a good one, I must say) of how an artist produces his illusion/magic, but that is not why I have quoted them here. Rather, they serve as a précis of the elements that Galloway will keep in play in the novel itself: there’s effect, method, misdirection and reconstruction involved, we just don’t know which is predominent at any moment.

Like the previous novel, this one comes with three narrative streams:

  • One is Houdini’s life itself, starting in 1897 when he and wife Bess are part of a travelling vaudeville show in the American mid-West. In the opening passage of this thread, Houdini, with Bess’s help, resorts to a cheap spiritualist trick that ends up disgusting him — it is the origin of his obsession to develop his talents as a craft, not merely some perverse show that produces commercial success.
  • The second is the story of Martin Strauss, set in 1926. While he is introduced as a McGill University student deeply in love with one Clara, that’s part of the author’s “misdirection” — he turns out to be the person who punches Houdini in the abdomen and ruptures his appendix.
  • The third is Martin in “the present day”, some decades on from that punch. We are introduced to him just after he has been diagnosed with tinnitus “where you hear a ringing that isn’t there…a symptom of other maladies, but the constant hum of nonexistent sound has been known to drive the afflicted to madness and suicide.” We also learn in that passage that he has also recently come into contact with Houdini’s daughter, Alice. And, with dramatic foreshadowing, “what no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”
  • The novel alternates between those three streams in both voice and time, but it also involves three contextual elements that become increasingly interwoven as it proceeds:

  • Houdini’s magic: Galloway has done his homework so we don’t just get that longish explanation of how it works, but also a number of detailed explanations recounting (and revealing) some of his most famous illusions — both those that he used frequently and memorable one-off events. If you like magic and don’t want it spoiled, give this book a miss on that front.
  • Spiritualism: The incident that provoked Houdini’s disgust turned into a life-long crusade against this gang. Even he admitted that both magic and spiritualism shared the four elements described above but whereas he was openly an entertainer charging admission, the spiritualists used them to create power and to abuse it. In a generation where prominent individuals ranging from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King to American cabinet ministers were acknowledged spiritualists, that abuse could have globally damaging effects.
  • State manipulators: Government intelligence and spying are based on the same four elements — so both magicians and spiritualists are attractive resources for national secret services in pursuit of their own devious ends. The CIA, MI5 and Soviet intelligence all feature in the book, determined to co-opt people like Houdini as agents for their own agendas of power.

    While all those elements and people were part of the real-life story, Galloway needs to severely adjust reality for the purposes of the novel as he hints early on with the “I killed him twice” reference. Since the author reveals the secrets of many Houdini tricks, I don’t feel particularly guilty about revealing his own big one here (albeit after an appropriate warning): in this book, Houdini did not die from that ruptured appendix. Rather, it was a ruse that allowed him to go underground and devote his life to pursuing his anti-spiritualist crusade.


    As you can probably tell from that summary, there is a lot going on in this novel — and that was the source of most of my problems with it. One of the problems with multiple narrative streams is that just when you get interested in the one you are reading, the author abruptly moves to another. In addition to the voices and elements that I have described, Galloway in each stream includes a wealth of personal detail and story designed to humanize his characters but which end up confusing the bigger story even further. While part of that may well have been deliberate “misdirection”, I found myself often uninterested in what the concluding “reconstruction” was — to use the author’s own words, “it loses its power once we no longer wish to understand how it was done”.

    That certainly did not happen all the time, but it came often enough that it was a source of frustration. Perhaps an even bigger factor in my ambivalent response is that I found the opening “tricks” much more successful that I did the later ones. While I’d give Galloway an A for ambition with this one, for this reader the execution falls well short of that mark.

    7 Responses to “The Confabulist, by Steven Galloway”

    1. Guy Savage Says:

      I can understand the attraction towards a real life incident or true story for an author–especially if there is some mystery (thinking here of the Black Dahlia, whose real story is so wrapped in myth, the bones of the case have been practically wiped out by the mythology). Anyway, that said, I know I would not like this book–even though I admit to a vague interest in Houdini.

      The CIA? MI5? Houdini had enough mystery around him w/o adding all that.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        In The Cellist, Galloway used the real incident as a platform to add some depth to interesting human stories. Whereas in this one, he seems to want to push the envelope in as many directions as he can — the sort of thing that works in a 90-minute noirish video, but doesn’t have what I expect from a novel. His writing is still quite good — I just think this was an effort that didn’t quite succeed.


    2. Guy Savage Says:

      I saw a film about Houdini, coincidentally, recently, which didn’t quite seem to work either.


    3. Steven Galloway Says:

      Sorry you didn’t like it, KevinfromCanada. Memory is you didn’t much like the last one either. Maybe next time!
      Anyhow, thanks for not revealing the ending of the book. Much appreciated.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I liked the last one a lot — and the favorable impression has increased over time. I figured then (and continue to believe) it deserved to go further in the various prizes but suffered from the controversy over the cover, which had nothing to do with the author or the quality of the novel.

        And I certainly will be giving the next one a go. I’d be first to admit that maybe this one just didn’t fit my taste.


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