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The Confabulist: Author Steven Galloway takes on Harry Houdini and the art of misdirection

Unreliable narrator: Galloway has written a novel that pivots on the theme of deception.

The Confabulist
Steven Galloway
Alfred Knopf Canada

Steven Galloway's title is the kind of reverse warning that's designed to draw you in, not ward you off.

A confabulist, in psychology-speak, is someone who fabricates imaginary experiences as compensation for memory loss. In true confabulation, if we can call it that, there is no intention to deceive: It is simply a symptom of brain damage or dementia, with no added craftiness or pretensions to the post-modern.

But The Confabulist is fiction, a form of not-quite-life where the made-up is the rule. How do we handle a narrator who is labelled a conning fabulist from the very start?

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Galloway's literary sleight-of-hand is revealed on the title page. He deliberately asks us to mistrust his story of Harry Houdini, a showman whose rise to stardom would beggar belief even if the tale-teller were sworn to the truth.

And so the true art in this frustratingly ambitious novel of magic and its misdirections lies in Galloway's Houdini-like attempts to fool a crowd that is watching his every move. We know this is fiction and therefore fake, so let's see you try to make us believe it's real. And then just to raise the stakes, do it with a narrator who can't be trusted, talking about a slippery celebrity who turned evasion into its own art form.

Martin Strauss, a confabulist of indeterminate age and erratic imagination, is so far gone that he accepts his own deceptions. He's the man who killed Houdini, at least in his own mind, with a casual punch to the gut at a Montreal hotel back in 1926. A lifetime later, he's recounting his magic-obsessed personal history before the fabrications of his brain lose all touch with reality. What follows is a time-shifting story of Houdini's life and death that can't seem to distinguish incredible fantasy from prosaic truth – in Houdini's mysteriously crafted self-creation, to be fair, it is often hard to separate the two extremes.

Heady stuff, even if this were just some tale-chasing enigma designed to contort a few impressionable minds in one of Galloway's creative-writing classes at UBC. But he aims higher with The Confabulist: As a highly self-conscious work of literary fiction, it strives also to be a not entirely dependable version of a Houdini biography (did he really ring the silenced bells of the Kremlin while performing magic for the czar?), a period novel about the lost art of communicating with the dead that incorporates real-life characters such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, an improbable thriller that places Houdini at the centre of an international spy network and a learned dissertation on the theory and practice of magic.

Like Houdini, Galloway believes that the magician's greatest trick is not just to amaze the audience, but to make you believe the impossible. But in creating a web of intricacy that draws a little too much attention to the laborious method of novel-writing, he loses track of the effect – the moment where amazement appears and we become convinced against our best judgment that magic is happening.

The Confabulist, for all its methodical sense of misdirection, doesn't amaze.

Maybe Galloway has too much up his sleeve, because the sense of trickery is ever-present in a slow-moving chronicle that keeps leading us back to where we started – a scene-stealing narrator with a powerful lack of accomplishment who is more convincing as a literary device than as a human being.

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Why should Martin Strauss have to be convincing, Galloway's legion of fans will ask? He's a confabulist, after all, so he's not here to entertain any mass-market notions of character development.

And it's true: Pretty well every flaw in this uneven, highly internalized book can be excused by this single narrative trick. The unconvincing thriller segments are low-pulse in their stagey rendering, and feel like a faithful combination of fan fiction and the Internet's deepest conspiracy theories – exactly the haunts of an obsessive confabulist.

The language in the scenes from Houdini's life is extremely wooden, as if the past were entirely populated by literary figments who communicated in stilted dialogue – but then wouldn't a narrator like Strauss recreate his imagined history with an amateur's studied formality?

Characters are indistinct, motivations are suspect and any kind of depth of understanding is supplied by the prolonged ponderings of the two brooders in the story – Strauss and Houdini – who over-think every response and reaction. But how can that kind of solipsism be a flaw when it's the motivation for the entire story?

If the magic is missing from the storytelling, it still dominates the story. And this is where Galloway is at his best – setting aside the temporary illusion that The Confabulist is fiction and simply crafting mini-meditations on the nature of Houdini's captivating art, where illusions seem to have substance and the real can co-exist with the impossible.

Like Houdini, Galloway ends up playing to his audience even when he knows better.

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John Allemang is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.

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