Houdini’s Gambit: The Confabulist

Seth Satterlee -- January 29th, 2014
confabulistAt lunch in a dim West Village cellar, Steven Galloway tells a story from his childhood of a favorite uncle, suited and sporting a fedora, who once let him win at a game of checkers. He can remember it vividly; he even remembers knowing what his uncle is doing and not protesting. It’s better than winning! Being someone who he lets win. Though brief, the memory stayed with Galloway as a pivotal moment, an early triumph, until he tried recounting it to a family member only to learn the uncle had died before his birth. “I’d made it up completely, but was convinced—I still kind of am. It’s one of my most important memories.”

Houdini_in_chains_restoredIn The ConfabulistGalloway’s second novel which publishes in May, the protagonist has similar troubles—but with many more memories. Due to a rare neurological condition, his mind is fabricating stories to replace the realily of his past. Never incoherent, these fabrications make up a linear and completely false history, one in which he tells us in the opening pages: “I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”

Thrilling, sly, and filled with dramatic moments behind the curtain, The Confabulist considers counterfeit memory, the nature of assumptions, and the vast trickery of Houdini’s legendary performances. Opening with the unstable narrator, Galloway jumps between his story and the story of Houdini, whose incendiary tactics capitalized on these gaps in human cognition. The Confabulist is both a meditation on the the vagaries of the mind and an adventure ride through the elaborate deceptions Houdini has come to epitomize.

Galloway is somewhat nervous his book won’t go over well with The Alliance of Magicians, but says he’s confident they can’t pin the unveiling of Houdini tricks on him: “Most of them you can find already, if you Google long enough. Except the the Water Torture Cell. There seems to be a consensus not to reveal that one.”  With breakthroughs in neuroscience rising exponentially as of late, the subject matter feels very much of it’s time. Houdini’s story though—in Galloway’s clever hands—feels almost timeless.

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