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The magic of memory

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

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/5/2014 (1194 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

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.

Steven Galloway

Steven Galloway

Harry Houdini


Harry Houdini

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."


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

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