Book: Us Conductors
Author: Sean Michaels
Genre: Historical Fiction, Canlit, Music, (Romance?), (Semi-Fictional Biography?), (Everything?)
Published: 2014, Tin House Books
Locked in a cabin aboard a ship bearing him back to Russia, Lev Sergeyevich Termen begins to type his story: a tale of love, electricity, and the invention of the world’s strangest musical instrument, the theremin. He recollects his early years as a scientist, forging breakthroughs in Saint Petersburg, and the pivotal decade he lived as a Manhattan celebrity and reluctant Soviet spy. Against a backdrop of Prohibition and the 1929 Crash, Lev spends his days in a workshop, building mechanical marvels, and his nights in Harlem clubs, jostling with famous bandleaders and falling head over heels for Clara, a beautiful young violinist.
But when Lev’s ship finally reaches his homeland, he finds this is not the Russia he remembers. Anchorless and lonely, torn away from his inventions, Lev is swallowed into Stalin’s Gulag system – confronting vicious thugs, Siberian winter, and the machinations of a secret military laboratory. Amid horrors and peril, Lev’s feelings for Clara are a thin constant, passing through the ether like the theremin’s song.
Although based on the true events of Lev Termen’s life, Us Conductors is mostly a magical invention. Full of ingenuity, wonder, and looping heartbreak, this sublime debut explores the lies we tell, the truths we imagine, and the lengths we go to survive.
A little less than a year ago, I went to a reading for an author I’d never heard of before.
Sean Michaels read us this passage from the first chapter of his debut book, and I was hooked:
“I am an instrument. I am a sound being sounded, music being made, blood, salt, and water manipulated in the air. I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you.”
Needless to say, after about an hour and a half, I left feeling quite enchanted, with a signed book in tow.
Now, I’m not usually much of a historical fiction fan; I always find my concentration strays when facts seem to become more important than words, but Sean Michael’s writing engaged my attention so much that I couldn’t stand to put this book down.
To describe it as something like “the fictional story of the very real theremin inventor, Lev Sergeyevich Termen, as a Russian spy, set in both America and Russia ranging in chronology from the 20’s to the 40’s,” would be crude, but it also wouldn’t be inaccurate.
It moves all over the place. From Jazz Age New York to Stalin’s Gulag labour camps, from musical inventions to inventions of espionage, it interweaves creativity and science in a way that makes them seem inseparable.
It’s also set in first person, but frequently shifts into second to address the main character’s love interest, Clara (who was also a real person). The entire book is written as a sort of letter to her, from Lev, which is definitely different, but doesn’t seem out of place.
But this book is not just a romance. Sure, it has love in it, and that love might even be one of the central motivators for the main character, but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s also about a perspective on history you might have not been taught about in school. It’s about the (semi-fictional) biography of a man I’d never heard of, but who lived, from what I gather, a complex and inspiring life. The writing is breathtaking, so much so that I would call it a sort of poetry, no sentence seems unintentional. And, of course, it’s fiction. While reading the book, I found myself spotting writing techniques that were executed beautifully. After reading the author’s notes at the end, I agreed with the parts that were fabricated and the parts that were left untouched. The writer in me was both jealous and elated at the success of it all.
There were also so many beautiful insights, the kind that seem so obvious until you realize you’ve never actually considered them in that way before.
“‘Wishing is just the empty air between people.'”
And my heart kind of broke at the page 150 mark:
More importantly, this book has a story that’s different; it’s filled with adventure and love and music and camaraderie, and heartbreak and tragedy and harsh realities that seem so bad you assume they must be the fictional bits, but of course they’re some of what actually happened.
I found myself becoming so incredibly invested in a story that did not belong to me, which is I’m sure how the author felt about the real Lev and Clara.
So I don’t want to give away a lot about the plot, because I’d highly recommend you do what I did and begin reading it even if you don’t have much of an idea as to what a theremin is, or don’t know anything about Russian history. It’s so nice to be surprised by a book every once in a while, and I assure you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this one.