Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The magic of memory

B.C. writer Steven Galloway joins unreliable narrator, Houdini in new novel

  • Print
Steven Galloway

Enlarge Image

Steven Galloway

To confabulate is to create imaginary experiences to compensate for a lack of memory, but without the intent to deceive.

Such is Martin Strauss's plight. One of two main characters in B.C. writer Steven Galloway's latest novel The Confabulist, he's told by a doctor early in the novel that he has a condition that will gradually rob him of the ability to process and store memories, and that his brain will create new ones in their place.

In this tale of romance, spiritualism, international intrigue and suspense, Strauss also states that he killed the other protagonist of The Confabulist, legendary magician Harry Houdini, not once, but twice. As reliable narration goes, not a great way to start.

In reality, Houdini died of appendicitis on Halloween 1926, days after a man named J. Gordon Whitehead punched him in the stomach after a show in Montreal. (In The Confabulist, it's Strauss who punches Houdini, leading to the first of his two deaths.)

The success and critical acclaim of Galloway's 2008 novel The Cellist of Sarajevo put him on the national literary map. And when it came to writing a followup, it put him in a tenuously enviable situation.

"Unlike with previous books, I was aware there was an audience of people waiting to see what I did next," Galloway says by phone in advance of his May 15 appearance at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

"That's a total gift. The worst thing about writing is feeling like you're shouting into a storm. It was empowering to know I had some currency. I could write an unreliable narrator -- a first-time writer may not have afforded that trust."

The Confabulist's narrative is split into two threads -- Strauss's unreliable first-person recollections of his life before and after becoming entangled with Houdini's, as well as an omniscient perspective of the magician's life.

Strauss's unreliability is one side of the coin Galloway skilfully palms across the pages; he injects Houdini's life with complex, elaborate tales of international espionage involving the Russian aristocracy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and much more.

When he began writing and researching The Confabulist, Galloway read extensively about Houdini and his vaudevillian contemporaries, as well as the psychology of magic. But he also had to ensure Strauss's mental deterioration made sense.

"I did a lot of research into the psychology of memory -- how our brains work, how the mind interprets information and reconstructs it into memory."

Reconstruction is at the core of The Confabulist. In the novel, Strauss talks about it as one of the four essential elements of magic, the other three being effect, method and misdirection.

Fiction embodies these same elements. "Reconstruction is the most interesting," says Galloway. "When we're done watching a magic trick or reading a book, we sit and think about what happened and try to put it all back together."

Like a magician, a novelist performs his sleight of hand without the audience realizing what's happening. "When people read a book, they don't remember it word for word -- they remember dialogue, scenes, moments," says Galloway.

"One of your jobs as a writer is to make sure the reader remembers the moments they need to remember. Even in my favourite books I couldn't tell you everything that happened, but I could tell you the most important moments."

ben.macphee-sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2014 C6

History

Updated on Thursday, May 15, 2014 at 9:54 AM CDT: Adds link to review.

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Keri Latimer looks for beauty in the dark and the spaces between the notes

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Susan and Gary Harrisonwalk their dog Emma on a peaceful foggy morning in Assiniboine Park – Standup photo– November 27, 2011   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • Geese fly in the morning light over Selkirk Ave Wednesday morning- Day 22– June 13, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should Winnipeg control growth to deal with climate change?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google