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.
Stephen Galloway, the award-winning author of The Cellist of Sarajevo, takes on a legendary real-life character and tries to make some magic with his lesser known history.
He tells a tale of Houdini, vaudevillian superstar, greatest magician of his time, escape artist extraordinaire and, maybe, an international spy.
Martin Strauss is none of these things. When we meet him, in the present day of the tale, he has just gotten some bad news:
”Yours is a rare condition,” [the doctor] said, seeming almost excited, “in which the damage that is being done to your brain does not destroy cognitive function but instead affects your brain’s ability to store and process memories. In response to this, your brain will invent new memories.”
Strauss is Galloway’s external, invented character, there to help frame the narrative. So, Harry Houdini meets Memento?
Strauss, a student in Montreal, is fascinated with magic, although he is not a capable practitioner. He is smitten with a young lady who shares his interest, and when they have a chance to see the great Harry Houdini perform, they avail. Strauss is not the most secure beau and when the object of his desire seems more interested in the famed escape artist than is comfortable, things get heated.
On October 31, 1926, the real-life Houdini died from a ruptured appendix. A few days earlier, in Montreal, a student named Whitehead was granted permission to punch Houdini in the stomach, a test of the performer’s claim that it would not hurt him. Under normal circumstances it might not have, but it turned out that Houdini was compromised with a case of appendicitis. He kept traveling and performing, but was brought to a hospital in Detroit, in severe pain, and died there. Ascribing his death to the student’s blows was really a ploy to get his life insurance to pay double.
“Houdini’s death has always really interested me. What would it be like to be the guy who punched Harry Houdini in the stomach?” from the Globe and Mail interview
There are alternating tale-tellers in The Confabulist. Martin Strauss speaks for himself, and the Houdini chapters are told by an omniscient narrator. The time lines are dual as well, present day alternating with a past that advances from 1897, before Houdini had achieved world-wide renown, to 1927, as Martin recalls and we see for ourselves what transpired. We cover some real estate in The Confabulist, as well, from Canada to New York to sundry locales in Europe.
Houdini – image from wikimedia
We get to see how the gifted Erik Weisz, a Budapest-born son of a rabbi, became the amazing Houdini, professionally and theatrically. There are explanations for a few of the stage tricks of the age, and that is a particular bit of fun. There is some insight into how the entertainment business of the early 20th century was run, and a look at the latter day Houdini as an exposer of charlatan psychics and spiritualists.
When asked how he landed on Houdini for his new novel, Galloway says he was fascinated by the showman’s iconic status, but also by the fact that Houdini himself was a sort of fiction. “Most magicians are kind of made-up characters, but him more than any. He’s a Hungarian Jew pretending to be Mr. America. Most of what he said about himself biographically was a total, total lie. So I just kind of arrived there and never left.” – from the Globe and Mail interview
Strauss’s history is far less interesting, but in his musings we get at some of the thematic issues of the novel. Some insight into international intelligence goings on of the period is also noteworthy.
What is real and what an illusion is a consistent theme throughout the tale, on stage and off
How is it we can be so sure that we’ve seen, heard and experienced what we think we have? In a magic trick, the things you don’t see or think you see have a culmination, because at the end of the trick there’s an effect. Misdirection tampers with reconstruction. But if life works the same way, and I believe it does, then 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
a memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress
So does Galloway succeed in making magic? Only somewhat. There are two issues I had with the book. One is the inherent difficulty of having an unreliable narrator. That this is done openly from the opening chapter does not make it any less problematic. How are we to know if what Strauss reports is true or imagined? And if one cannot know if what he reports is real, it makes for difficulty in relating to his experience, and knowing for ourselves that what we are reading is or is not an accurate rendering of events. The dimorphism between the wonderful tale of Houdini’s and the far less gripping tale of Martin Strauss makes one want to slip the knots of Martin’s chapters to make one’s way back to the real action. And, while the story of Houdini does succeed in holding our interest, it seemed to me that there remained a distance between reader and character, even for Houdini, that kept one from the sort of emotional engagement that is needed if we are to feel much for him. Martin is an obvious literary device, so one does not hope for too much there. But one does want to feel more of an investment in Houdini than was possible here.
There are compelling elements at play in The Confabulist. The contemplation of reality versus illusion counts as a strength. On the other hand, the rationale for Strauss’s attack on Houdini seemed forced. One would expect that there is a marvelous story encased in the available elements. Unfortunately, the tale is only able to extract a limb or two and remains locked up. While there is no obvious tell in the author’s literary sleight of hand, there is certainly enough going on to sustain a reader’s interest, this remains an instance when the magic simply does not quite go poof.
Review posted – 6/20/14
It was first posted on Fantasy Book Critic
Publication date – May 6, 2014
The condition ascribed to Martin Strauss was discovered by one Sergei Korsakoff, a Russian neuropsychiatrist, who is represented in The Confabulist by a Russian Dr. Korsakoff practicing in the West, presumably New York. Here is some info on the actual condition.
A bit of info on Harry Houdini