In “A Matter of Identity,” from his collection “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” Oliver Sacks writes about the autobiographies that we carry around in our heads: “To be ourselves we must have ourselves — possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must ‘recollect’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.” Sacks draws this observation from his encounters with a man suffering from the neurological condition known as Korsakoff’s Syndrome, in which the patient has become a confabulist, constantly creating a false autobiography based upon fabricated, distorted and misinterpreted memories. These confabulations become as real for the sufferer as any actual memories.
The narrator of Steven Galloway’s new novel, “The Confabulist,” is a man in the present day named Martin Strauss. He recounts his life story, which is built on the belief that he killed the most famous magician and escape artist of all time, Harry Houdini, by delivering a blow to his stomach and bursting his appendix. “What no one knows,” Strauss confesses, “is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.” Strauss’s reconstructed story revolves around his memory’s “grand tug-of-war between substance and illusion.”
Like a good magic trick, “The Confabulist” is so cleverly constructed that Galloway leaves you wondering: How did he do it?
Part of his method is the intercut narratives. First, there is the real story of Strauss’s life, which he tells to Alice Weiss, who he believes is Houdini’s illegitimate only child. Second, there is Strauss’s fictionalized autobiography intersecting with Houdini’s life. These memories — real and imagined — are reclaimed in bits and pieces, arranged out of order so that the reader, like the illusionist himself, must actively put them back together.
In a third-person account, Strauss traces some of the well-known highlights of Houdini’s life and illusions. We learn along the way the role his wife played in his career, how he escaped from handcuffs and locks, the secrets behind the vanishing elephant and the milk-can escape. He describes how Houdini debunked mediums and seances after his mother’s death. But we also learn that Houdini was a notorious womanizer and may well have led a secret life as an agent for the United States, spying on Russian royalty, evading a ring of conspirators and spiritualists — including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — who may have wished him dead. And how Houdini escaped a first death to carry on his secret life.
A lifelong devotee of magic, Strauss remembers taking his girlfriend Clara to see Houdini perform. What happens between these two sweethearts during intermission in a locked coat closet sets in motion events that lead to that fateful blow to the abdomen. During the scuffle, Houdini drops into Strauss’s pocket a code book filled with inscrutable sequences of letters. Word comes a few days later that Houdini has suddenly died. Strauss fears that he killed Houdini and must make his own desperate escape from the scene, if only to protect Clara from scandal.
Strauss’s confabulations and the intrigue — real and imaginary — of Houdini’s life help provide the misdirection inherent in this novel. What gives “The Confabulist” its depth and poignancy is the reader’s participation in reconstructing the story. Galloway has captured just how insistent memory is. We are all its captives. In the end, Strauss confesses, “I’ve denied myself a life in the attempt to appease my flawed remembrances.” It is a beautifully wrought novel about the grip of illusion and the way we tell ourselves stories to seek redemption, or forgiveness at the very least.
Donohue is the author of “The Stolen Child” and other novels.
By Steven Galloway
Riverhead. 304 pp. $27.95