Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

18492619Fiction — print. Tin House Books, 2014. 464 pgs. Library copy.

Based on the subtitle — “In which I seek the heart of Clara Rockmore, my one true love, finest theremin player the world will ever know” — alone, I expected to read a novel feature a so-called “nice guy” who engages in the rather hipster pastime of listening to the music of an obscure instrument. Imagine my surprise when I reached the fifteenth page and learned the novel is, in fact, based on the life of the inventor of the theremin, Lev Sergeyevich Termen (also known as Léon Theremin).

During the course of the novel, Termen believes the Soviet Union pays for him to travel to Europe and the United States in order to show off Soviet ingenuity but quickly learns his trip is a guise for his handler’s monetary schemes and his country’s spying initiatives. Lev is eventually pressed into participating in such initiatives before being recalled to the USSR, and the first part of the novel is him recounting his time living in New York City during the late 1920s and 1930s as he is transported in a locked cabin aboard the Stary Bolshevik.

Michaels links to a rendition of “Moon River” played on the theremin on his website, although video of Termen playing the theremin exists, and I would suggest watching this video before reading the novel in order to better understand why the instrument was an economic failure. Doing so might also help to explain the fictional Termen’s frame of mind particularly as it relates to his awe of Clara Rockmore, which I felt like was an underdeveloped aspect of the novel. In this case, love might truly be carried through music rather than words.

The language used in this novel in both the dialogue of the characters and the descriptions provided by Termen’s narrative never rang true for the time period in which the novel is supposed to be set. It felt far too familiar to me, far too much like the language I expected the character to use based on my cursory glance at the subtitle. I neither expected nor demand Michaels utilize Russian phrases within his dialogue to convince me of the authenticity of his Russian characters yet I could never image the characters in a 1920s settings as I was supposed to.

The second part of the novel focuses on Termen’s time in a “scientific prison” following his return to Russia as written by the fictional Termen in a 1947 journal written for Clara Rockmore. Termen struggles to adapt to life in Stalinist Russia; he attempts to gain favor with the upper echelon of the new government by reminding them of his past as a Soviet spy and Lenin’s personal enjoyment of the theremin. This particular aspect caught my attention but I felt it was nearly as fleshed out as the first section of the novel because Michaels quickly ferries the reader through Termen’s life in a Stalinist prison to the epilogue.

Michaels states in his author’s note at the end of the novel that while he researched known facts about Termen’s life, “it is full of distortions, elisions, omission, and lies”. Lumped amongst these “distortions, elisions, omission, and lies” are elements of an intriguing story slightly overshadowed by dialogue incompatible with the time period. Yet it is worth spending the time overcoming such distractions in order to learn more about the theremin and its inventor through this fun and rather curious tale.


    • A professor in college mentioned it during a debate about the accessibility of music, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone play it. So fascinating to watch after the detailed description of how to play the theremin provided by this novel.


    • I probably would have never heard of Us Conductors or picked it up if it hadn’t been longlisted (and now shortlisted) for the Giller Prize so I’m glad it’s attracting attention.


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