There is, perhaps, nothing more terrifying than the possibility of being led astray by one's own mind. If we can't trust our own perceptions, memories, or reasoning, then there is no escape-no way to move out of the tortured state of limbo that lies between our own perceptions and a reality they cannot ascertain.
The Confabulist-the new novel by Steven Galloway, who wrote The Cellist of Sarajevo, the 2012 One Maryland Book pick-dwells in distortion as it follows the intertwined lives of Harry Houdini and Martin Strauss, the rather ordinary man who happened to kill the master illusionist. Partly as a result of the guilt he feels over Houdini's death, Martin is losing his memory and, according to his doctor, his mind. Like Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, Martin Strauss is a delightfully unreliable narrator.
But just as the protagonist of Christopher Nolan's influential 2000 film Memento used a series of photographs as breadcrumbs to find his way out of a world with no memory, Martin Strauss has a notebook written in an odd code. He got it just after he punched Houdini out, and it will eventually uncover a mysterious underworld of lost memories-or imaginations. As in a novel, text creates the world on each page for a man like Martin, and the book we are reading is his attempt at sanity. "Perhaps if I write things down, I can create a story for myself that, through rereading, will become a new sort of reality as my ability to distinguish between illusion and substance worsens," he says in a sentence that could well describe any form of literary effort.
Martin's illusory world is illuminated by the story of Houdini, whom we find, at the novel's outset in 1897, at the height of his popularity. It is clear that Galloway did his homework and The Confabulist reads-in chapters that alternate with Martin's ruminations-like a biography of the great magician, including detailed discussions of his illusions ("not tricks, tricks are something whores do for money," as Arrested Development's Gob would put it) and gossipy details about his love life. For, while Houdini may be a symbol of excellence and showmanship, he was also quite a dick. He was a notorious womanizer and, in this book at least, he hangs out with shady characters who talk like people in Godfather fan fiction. And Galloway gives no life to Houdini's wife, relegating her to the background, where she does little more than cry, glare, or give her husband a look.
In general, it feels as if Galloway has tried to cram too much into this book, leaving too many characters underdeveloped and stunted. Galloway dabbles in the history of spiritualism, as in his depiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, who tries to convince Houdini that fairies are real and that his wife communes with spirits. And there's an interesting but ultimately superfluous section about the Romanov Empire-pages which would have been better spent making Houdini a more human character and delving into what is left of Martin's memories. But neither of these characters are as detailed as they could be. Houdini never really comes into focus. At times it feels like he is the subject of the book and, at others, as if he is here merely to elucidate Martin's story, which also fails to come together enough to command our attention. Of course, the possibility of the story not coming together is part of the thrill in an existential mystery like this, but such a story should at least be coherent in its incoherence. The rather random punch that connects Martin and Houdini, for instance, seems improbable-but there is a certain pleasure in wondering whether the failure is Martin's or his creator's.
These are the questions that make the book interesting even where it fails. But it's hard not to be disappointed when the premise offered such fertile terrain for the investigation of the fragility of memory-and ultimately the human condition-in the form of a crime novel. The Confabulist doesn't quite live up to its philosophical pretensions or its literary form, providing deepish reflection and a crime-y plot where the pacing feels more rushed and urgent, cramming too much into the last 20 pages.
Still, there are moments, as when Martin describes memory as "a ghost of something that's been gone for a long time" that capture the wistful horror of living without memory-for the past doesn't exist and memory itself is a complex illusion.
Steven Galloway will read from The Confabulist on May 8 at Ivy Bookshop. For more information, please visit theivybookshop.com