Conducting Unreliable Narrators

Reviewed by Joel Martineau

Imagine the challenge that Steven Galloway faced in planning a novel to succeed the sublime The Cellist of Sarajevo (2008). In The Confabulist he takes Harry Houdini (1874-1926) as his subject and invents a layered narrative structure to link Houdini’s latter years to current times. The novel begins with a first-person narrator seeing a doctor, who warns him, “Mr. Strauss . . . you will lose your mind. . . . It is a degenerative physiological condition, and there isn’t anything at this time that can be done about it.” Minutes later Martin Strauss sits outside the hospital and decides that if he soon “won’t remember” his life he should tell “what has happened.” He becomes the confabulist of the novel’s title, destined—as Webster’sdefines—“to fill in gaps in memory by fabrication.” The preface concludes with Strauss proclaiming, “I didn’t just kill Harry Houdini. I killed him twice.”

In an abrupt shift, an omniscient narrator then relates a lengthy chapter that introduces Houdini in 1897, age twenty-three, as an aspiring but little heralded performer. The novel will contain three further major chapters describing Houdini attracting thousands during a European tour in 1904, caught in the vice of international espionage in 1918, and lecturing against charlatan spiritualists and their promoters (especially Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) in 1926. Interspersed among these foci on Houdini are nine shorter chapters in which Strauss describes his life-long fascination with Houdini. He first reveals his role as the Montreal university student who challenged Houdini’s boast about steely stomach muscles by punching the magician (a blow actually inflicted by J. Gordon Whitehead). Houdini refused medical attention, continued his tour, and died a few days later in Detroit due to a ruptured appendix, perhaps caused by the punch. Strauss believes that his act precipitated Houdini’s death and he bolts—probably from shame, perhaps from fear of illusory avenging forces. He becomes a friendless man on the run who dreams of communicating with Houdini’s daughter. While Strauss studies magic and memory, and thus capably voices Galloway’s interests, his narrative reconstruction becomes increasingly arcane as the novel progresses. A pulpy noir shootout in which Strauss kills Houdini for the second time fails to exorcise his ghost and makes for an underwhelming conclusion to The Confabulist.

Sean Michaels uses a simpler structure in Us Conductors. First-person narrator Léon Theremin is locked in a cabin on board the vessel Stary Bolshevik, writing to Clara Rockmore, née Reisenberg, whom he has loved without reciprocation from the moment they met. It is 1938, and shadowy figures have spirited Theremin (1896-1993) from his New York residence and are returning him to his Russian homeland after eleven years during which he was slipped “like a hand into America’s industrial pocket.” The letter comprises Part One of the novel and allows Michaels to reconstruct Theremin’s life to that point. Michaels sketches Theremin’s emergence as an inventor during the turmoil in Russia as Lenin yielded to Stalin, his ascendance to stardom during the go-go 1920s when the musical instrument (precursor to the Moog synthesizer) that bears his name became faddish in America, and his increasing entanglement in a web of deceit spun by his clandestine Russian “handlers.” Professionally and artistically brilliant, handsome and born to dance, Theremin cuts a dashing figure. The wealthy and the powerful flock to him, but he seldom wavers from his infatuation with Clara, a Lithuanian émigré to America. She masters the theremin and adores him as her teacher, but never returns his love. He is a fallible man, worthy of our empathy as the Stary Bolshevik returns him to an uncertain future in Stalinist Russia.

Part Two plunges us into the Gulag. Lev Sergeyvich Termin, as he is known in Russia, has become prisoner L-890 in Marenko, a work camp for scientists situated outside Moscow—but only after being declared an enemy of the state and sentenced to work in the Kolyma gold mines, in effect a death sentence. There he uses his acute intelligence to win the attention of the prison commandant, to form an orchestra, and to improve productivity so dramatically that he is reassigned to the benign Marenko prison so that the state can take advantage of his inventive abilities, and, where he updates his personal history in a second letter to Clara. Us Conductors allows a remarkable man to tell his life story, all the while foregrounding his gallant commitment to his imagined love.

This review “Conducting Unreliable Narrators” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 152-54.

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