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Now you see it, now you don't-ish

Award-winning author Steven Galloway's tricky tale of Houdini and the man who killed him



Whistler hosts the 2014 Writers Festival from Oct. 17 to 19. Pique is running reviews of books by attending authors to celebrate. For information and tickets: www.whistlerwritersfest.com.

With his latest novel, The Confabulist, Vancouver writer Steven Galloway (The Cellist of Sarajevo) unpacks a literary magician's trunk of love, intrigue and fancy perhaps best summed in pop-patois: That time... you knew (suspected) your buddy was playing a trick on you but you let him do it anyway because you wanted to see what it actually was, if he could pull it off, and, in the event, how he actually did it.

And that's what you do, in a quick, enjoyable read that weaves myriad storylines around the life, death, obsessions and enigmas of that most famous escape artist and conjurer, Harry Houdini.

The narrator is Martin Strauss, a man of surpassing anonymity who begins as a failure-ridden foil to Houdini's successes and ends as his personality-flawed equal.

The plot between, however, is anything but straightforward. As best summarized by The Globe and Mail's John Allemang: "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."

Which, of course, is the point. But while Allemang's review and others turn on the book's title ("confabulate" is a medical term referencing the fabrication of imaginary experiences to compensate for memory loss) and the obvious devices employed in the telling, more interesting are the life-lessons churned up by the extensive soul-searching of characters that — at times oddly — drives a subterfuge of international intrigue and interpersonal loss.

It's interesting to learn how one might misdirect an observer while shucking off a pair of turn-of-the-century handcuffs, but Galloway's meditations on magic offer deeper insight, as when Strauss speaks of magicians' trade in the struggle with life and death:

"Magic that is not real magic affects us because it mirrors our existence. We know that what we see isn't as it seems, but we want it to be and want to understand it. We want to be fooled, and then want to know how we were fooled. We cannot prevent our minds from trying to figure out how the trick was done. I believe this is more than just intellectual curiosity. We strive for immortality in the face of its impossibility."

Likewise the author's ode to illusion in affairs of the heart and family — "(Love) is a feeling so irrational that it allows you to believe that the person you love has qualities they don't actually possess," and "The urge to resist becoming my father has dominated my adult life. When in doubt I ask myself what he would have done and I do the opposite. It's not even something I do consciously. He has infiltrated me to the core."

And so there's much resonance to bank from your friend's tale of Houdini, even while he is tricking you — usually adeptly, occasionally unconvincingly — into bringing the titan down to earth.

Like many grand magic shows, there's both the expected and the not-so-much. In this respect, The Confabulist is more sleight-of-hand than complex stage illusion, a simple trick that when revealed is no knockout, but nevertheless has you nodding 'Ahhh...'.

In the end, The Confabulist will appeal to the same broad two categories as an audience at a magic show: those willing to suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy being mystified, and those more deeply skeptical by nature, who recognize the deceptions of good magic but are happy nevertheless to watch closely, and with interest, to see how a skilled entertainer pulls them off.

Stephen Galloway is running a workshop, The Muse — Writing Descriptive Prose, on Saturday, Oct. 18, at 8:30 a.m.

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