Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (2014)

It doesn’t get much more obvious than stacking these truths on the book jacket: there it is.

Confabulist Galloway

Knopf Canada, 2014

The Confabulist
Steven Galloway

For even though the noun more commonly associated with ‘confabulate’ is ‘confabulation’, what is most important here is not the story itself but the voice behind the story: the confabulist.

Readers are directed to attend to the storyteller, whose fiction has been critically acclaimed, long- and short-listed for a number of awards, and selected for Toronto’s One Book program in 2014 (The Cellist of Sarajevo): Steven Galloway, the confabulist.

Looking beyond the novelist, the next most obvious candidate is Martin Strauss, whose voice opens the novel, speaking directly to readers in the first person.

But in a novel preoccupied by the relationship between reality and illusion, between memory and invention, between distraction and subterfuge, readers must be cautious. Confabulists in the mirror may be nearer than they appear.

‘Confabulate’ is defined by the OED as “fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for the loss of memory” and Martin’s doctor explains the phenomenon to him soon after readers meet him on the page.

So readers know that this man — whose brain will no longer store and process memories like most people but, instead, “will invent new memories” — is bound to present more questions than answers.

But Martin has a solution. “Perhaps if I write things down, I can create a story for myself that, through rereading, will become a sort of new reality as my ability to distinguish between illusion and substance worsens.”

At first glance, this seems reasonable. But readers must recall that Martin’s condition was present when the diagnosis was shared.

This means that readers must also question the point of entry for the confabulist, whether or not the question of the narrator as confabulist is, itself, a confabulation.

There is great potential to ravel and unravel these philosophical questions for those readers who enjoy such puzzles. In fact, Martin’s solution of creating a story actively engages readers in the process.

“I still wonder if this memory is real or false, if it’s me or everyone else who’s wrong. […] Is this illusion or substance? What does it mean if this moment never happened?”

What role does having an audience play in terms of establishing or confirming validity? If readers participate in Martin’s tale, through the act of reading and co-imagining, does that add substance to the experiences described? Does that make The Confabulist more or less real?

But for readers who are not interested in such musings, there is considerable pleasure to be found in Martin’s confabulations (both real and imagined from his perspective, all of them imagined from Steven Galloway’s perspective).

There is as much suspense in this tale as history, and it can be viewed as a page-turner or a work of polished artistry. (Or, perhaps one of those is an illusion.) Martin Strauss’ recounting of the life of Harry Houdini is gripping and propulsive.

“The whole world knows me as the man who killed Harry Houdini, the most famous person on the planet. His story is complicated, though most of it is widely known. What no one knows, save for myself and one other person who likely died long ago, is that I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”

It’s possible to completely forget the possibility that this is fabricated (which is certainly is at some level, although Steven Galloway cites some of his sources in the author’s notes at the end of the novel).

The presence of a number of historical figures besides Houdini himself adds substantially to the story’s credibility; it is easier to believe this accounting when the Romanov family and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle make appearances on the page. The settings are rich, though sketched in broad strokes, the language is straightforward and uncluttered, the dialogue is deftly interwoven with the exposition necessary to develop the plot, and the sense of the tale’s veracity swells.

But Houdini himself is an elusive character and as he rises in prominence, his capacity to wield significant influence increases along with his celebrity. Above all, Harry Houdini is a performer, an entertainer.

“At times he didn’t know what parts of him were real and what parts of him had been made up in order to become Harry Houdini.” He is a master of illusion. “Effect, method, misdirection, reconstruction. For me, they explain everything.”

One could say the same of a novelist. Steven Galloway, too, is a skillful illusionist. He pleats two tiers of a narrative, one the first-person voice of Martin Strauss and the other the third-person experience of Harry Houdini, but behind the curtain he is working his own kind of magic.

“A memory isn’t a finished product, it’s a work in progress. We think that our minds are like a library—the right book is there somewhere if you can find it. A
whole story will then unfold with you as the narrator. But our memory changes, evolves, erases. Moments disappear and are replaced and combined.”

The most remarkable element of this novel is not that it contains a multitude of illusions, but that it, itself, is an illusion. One might argue that the same could be said of any novel, but what sets this work apart is the author’s attention to a taut and delicate construction, the slow unravelling of voice twinned with the gradual lift of the curtain so that readers can catch a glimpse of the inner workings.

We readers are immediately engaged and bear some responsibility for creating this illusion, too, as we replace and combine our own memories of reading Steven Galloway’s confabulation.

IFOASmallBadgeSteven Galloway will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk.

5 comments to Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist (2014)

  • Fantastic review. What an intriguing premise. I’ve had my eye on this – I’ve an interest ‘sideshow’ acts and this sounds as though it could be a great one.

  • I had the pleasure of listening to Steven Galloway read from this book at this year’s Read by the Sea (readbythesea.ca) in River John, Nova Scotia.

    When I first heard the premise of this book, I wasn’t sold on the idea that it might be something for me. But, as you say, “The settings are rich, though sketched in broad strokes, the language is straightforward and uncluttered, the dialogue is deftly interwoven with the exposition necessary to develop the plot (. . .)”.

    I’m looking forward very much to getting my hands on a copy of The Confabulist. Fantastic review!

    • Although I have been interested in magic in Canlit since my high-school days with Robertson Davies’ Deptford books, I’m not entirely sure the description of this novel would have pulled me in either. But. The voice is immediately engaging and the plot is quite thrilling at times (shan’t say why), so I’m confident you’ll enjoy it. Good to know that his reading encouraged you too; maybe I’ll be lucky to hear him sometime this autumn.

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