New fiction: Who killed Houdini — twice?

The narrator of Steven Galloway’s new novel 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’ 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’ life, which he tells to Alice Weiss, who he believes is Houdini’s illegitimate only child. Second, there is Strauss’ 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. 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 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.

Strauss’ 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.

Keith Donohue reviewed this book for the Washington Post.