Steven Galloway's "The Confabulist" brings Houdini (and his killer) back to life
Spring 2014 brought with it two new books that dip into the life of master illusionist Harry Houdini—one for adults and one for young adults.
Steven Galloway's novel The Confabulist—shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize—is a dual narrative that tells the story of Houdini's rise to worldwide fame alongside that of Martin Strauss, the man who killed him.
"I was interested in writing about Houdini because of the degree to which he is already someone readers know about," says Galloway. "Because The Confabulist is so much about memory and the reliability of it, it seemed to me that using a character that was to some extent familiar to people as a part of that discussion was an interesting layer. He was to a large extent a fictional creation himself, a character invented by Erich Weiss, that over time became real. Kurt Vonnegut wrote something to the effect of we become what we pretend to be, so one should be careful what one pretends to be. This is true of all of us, but especially true of Harry Houdini."
In this excerpt below, Houdini demonstrates a magic trick to his wife for the first time.
by Steven Galloway
Three years earlier, when his new bride had still been superstitious and ignorant, he had begun to teach her the tricks of a false medium.
Her sister’s fiancé had died as a result of what Bess believed was the evil eye. At first he’d thought she was joking, but when he’d realized the extent of her belief he’d decided to show her what a simple matter deception was.
He waited until it seemed that Bess had cried herself out, and then smiled at her. “You've never told me your father’s first name,” he said. She opened her mouth, but he hushed her. “Write it on a piece of paper and fold it up.”
As she wrote he paced away, appearing lost in thought. He couldn't understand how people believed such things. No, he could. There was a time he believed as she did. Maybe he still did a little.
He’d been gutting it out in the low-end museum shows of vaudeville for years without success. His brother Dash had been his partner, but once Houdini married Bess there wasn't room in the show for three people. The act could barely support two—their one-room tenement was evidence of that. It pulsed with smoke, rats, and clamour. In a few days they’d give it up to go back on the road.
He turned back to her. She was trying to act calm, but he could tell she was nervous. She held a folded square of paper.
“Burn it on the stove,” he said.
She did as he directed, and he rolled up his left sleeve.
“Very few things in this world are as they seem,” he said. “But that doesn't mean there isn't an explanation for them. We are surrounded by what we do not understand. We will always be surrounded by what we do not understand. The mind plays tricks on us, makes connections that aren't there. We must remain on guard against the deception of our own minds. If we can stop our minds from deceiving us, then we can stop the treachery of others.”
Houdini went to the stove and put his fingers in the burned remnants of the paper. He rubbed the ash from the paper between his thumb and fingers, and then briskly up and down his forearm. He extended his arm toward her. Her face went from grief to rage and then, unexpectedly, to fear. Bess slowly backed away from him, hands outstretched, until she reached the door and ran from the room. On his forearm the name Gebhardt rose from his skin.
Houdini lowered his head and closed his eyes. Bess was prone to these sorts of outbursts, but he hadn’t intended for this to happen. So often this was the case; he thought he was being reasonable and full of sense but now he’d only made things worse.
He caught up to her on the street. Where she was going he had no idea, but when he finally stopped her they were both panting.
“The devil, you are the devil—my husband has been taken!” She kicked at him, and tried to bite him as he embraced her.
“It’s me, Bessie. I’m no devil. Come back and I’ll show you how I did it. It’s just a trick.”
She didn’t believe him, but she came with him anyway. Her eyes flitted from left to right, plotting escape. But he could see her realize that if he was the lord of darkness then escape was not possible. If the devil asks you to dance, you dance as well as you can. He could feel her resignation and fear.
With his arm around her they walked back up the street and ascended three flights of fetid stairwell, stepping over a man passed out on the second-floor landing. Back in their room he sat her down in the chair by the stove.
“Look here,” he said.
Excerpted from The Confabulist by Steven Galloway. Copyright © 2014 Steven Galloway. Reprinted by permission of Knopf Canada.
Steven Galloway is the author of Finnie Walsh, Ascension and The Cellist of Sarajevo. He teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, and lives with his wife and two young daughters in Vancouver, British Columbia. His most recent novel, The Confabulist, is shortlisted for the 2014 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.
Photo credit: Frances Raud