Us Conductors by Sean Michaels. Portland, OR: Tin House Books, June 2014. 456 pages. $15.95 paperback.
For your reference, here is a YouTube playlist of theremin music.
Us Conductors is the debut novel of Sean Michaels, a Montreal-based writer and music critic. I became familiar with Michaels’ work through his blog Said the Gramophone, which combines obscure jpegs, streaming music, and creative prose. Much of my own music and writing tastes developed from this website; its annual .zip file of the year’s best songs plays on infinite repeat for my winter months. While studying for a writing degree in college, I looked to Said the Gramophone as an educative supplement, an ancillary, a calming track when the workshops and peer critiques grew exhausting. On approach Michaels’ novellooked to deliver the same lithe and deliberate style as his posts.
Us Conductors occupies a cross-genre hinterland: part biography, part epistolary novel, part fiction and nonfiction. It is the story of Leon Termen, Russian engineer, tinkerer, and inventor of the theremin, that whooshy wooey electronic instrument recognized today as the sound of an advancing UFO, or the rhythmic through line of the chorus in the Beach Boys hit “Good Vibrations.” The real Lev Sergevyich Termen, or Leon Theremin, lived from 1886 to 1993, and Clara Rockmore nee Reisenberg—the novel’s romantic interest—really was a virtuosic thereminist who died at 87 in 1998. On its disclaimer page, Us Conductors reads: “This book is mostly inventions.” Add the lyrics from Kate Bush and Jesus and Mary Chain as chapter titles and you have a book that defies any kind of elevator pitch. Michaels himself calls it “a sort of love story.”
In the novel, Termen invents the theremin in Russia in 1921 and is immediately swept up by the Kremlin and asked to tour the country because “these discoveries aren’t just for the academy […] they are for the people.” Demonstrating in front of Lenin is a tent pole moment for Termen, who, for the remainder of the book, appends “(May his memory be illuminated)” onto any mention of the communist Premier.
He meets Pash, the man who would become his handler. They travel to America, where they practice music and espionage in equal measure, Termen as a reluctant spy and Pash as a Soviet heavy. In the hold of a ship bound for Russia in 1938, Termen types his account of these adventures to his beloved Clara Rockmore, the greatest thermenist in the world.
When Termen is with Clara, the novel is like a Baz Lurhmann party scene. The story is luminous, quickened—“You smiled at me and I realized we had never been together like this, not in a place like this, a place without spotlights or hidden corners; a place where you are illuminated only as you are, as bright or as faded.”
When Termen is with his Soviet handlers, the story becomes Werner Herzog voice-over.
Though there is espionage and intrigue, Us Conductors tempers and slows, mirroring the deep winters of the Motherland—“Now and then they asked me to steal, to take surreptitious photographs, but I bungled these, forgetting to remove the lens cap, taking the wrong document from the wrong folder. These lapses were neither deliberate nor accidental. I do not know what they were.”
Because the novel is written as a long form letter, the first meeting between Leon and Clara is a scene of reflexive beauty:
Outside the glass, the blizzard was infinite and slow. I remember breathing, and seeing you all breathing, chests rising and falling, under the shelter of my roof. I remember our shadows slanting by the lamps, and touching. My hands passed through the air and I looked at you, just a girl. Already, I knew: you were so many things. I tried to make the room tremble. I tried to make it sing. I think it sang.
Michaels has the ability to take an otherwise groaning setup—a man meets the love of his life in the twilight hours of a New York City snowstorm—and infuse it with an earnestness and poetry. Perhaps this is because Sean Michaels is a Canadian.
Us Conductors is the story of a man and his invention. The world moves faster than Termen can comprehend, and—over the course of 400 pages—Michaels himself conducts the dissonance between the Roaring Twenties and soviet gulags. Exiled, imprisoned, forced to work for the Motherland, Termen continues writing to Clara, and it is this devotion that founds the narrative. Sean Michaels has set his characters on a fragile board and filled them with unrealized hope. His words have within them a ceaseless waiting, like a hammer held above thin ice, or a sickle before the wheat fields.
the myth of persistent vision: A LOOK AT all movies love the moon