There are twelve notes on the chromatic scale. But music is limitless.
Us Conductors, by first-time novelist Sean Michaels, is loosely based on the life of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the theremin. (Unfamiliar with the theremin? The Beach Boys song Good Vibrations features it prominently. Think of a saw being bowed: Woooo-oooo. Ghostly, otherworldly.) One of its most dedicated and decorated players, in real life as well as in the novel, was Clara Rockmore, a woman who enraptured Lev Termen. It is to her that much of the narrative in Us Conductors is addressed.
Termen, a scientist from Leningrad, has arrived in Roaring Twenties New York. He is swept away by the glitz and glamour of the city, yet still he must maintain his allegiance to Mother Russia, as he is on a mission for his country. When Vladimir Lenin’s name is mentioned, it is followed by, “may his memory be illuminated.”
Lenin heartily encouraged Termen to take his theremin far and wide to demonstrate its wonderment and showcase the greatness of Mother Russia. As the theremin becomes increasingly popular in America, Termen is courted by Wurlitzer and RCA, who ask him, “Would you like to be a millionaire?” Termen is constantly in the dark about money matters. All deals and decisions are made by his Soviet handler, Pash, an elusive character who reveals very little.
“You are more unwitting than you think,” says Pash to Termen.
To the question of wanting to be a millionaire, he tells the scientist plainly, “Yes, you would.”
Michaels does an excellent job delving into Termen’s one true obsession, Clara, reflecting his never-ending inner dialogue with her that continues for days, months, years. Despite the incredible journey of Lev Termen, at the heart of Us Conductors is a man who has a thirst that cannot be quenched: “You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.”
Eventually, the glamour, speed and excitement of New York are replaced by “fragile faces awaiting disaster.” The dazzling Manhattan nightlife, concerts in front of 10,000 people at Coney Island, hush-hush speakeasys, all are left in the dust with the stock market collapse and the ensuing Great Depression.
Whatever picture Michaels is trying to paint, he does so with great accuracy and potency, whether speaking about “the first Negroes I have ever supped with or danced beside” or later on describing the state of life in a Russian prison camp, “kicking the wretched starving man at the places where the skin met his ribs.”
Us Conductors is a novel of epic proportions and as we jump back and forth through time, Michaels engrosses the reader with well-thought-out imagery that paints pictures of vastly different scenes. Lev the scientist and inventor. Lev the spy. Lev the kung-fu master, Lev the obsessed, Lev the murderer. Lev the excommunicate. Lev the stowaway, Lev the traitor. Lev the prisoner. One should feel great sympathy for the character Michaels has created, a proud Russian scientist who is swept away by American decadence and beauty and is made to repay his debt in the severest of fashions.
To come totally clean here, I forgot I wasn’t reading an autobiography and took in the story as if it were historical fact. Sold a theremin to Charlie Chaplin? Of course Chaplin would want one. Makes perfect sense. A scientist and and kung-fu master? Well, anyone so dedicated to one line of work could easily dedicate themselves to another honourable training. Michaels has a natural gift for bringing us to a time and place which allows the suspension of belief and lets you walk every step of the way with him.
Brendan Canning, a founding member of Broken Social Scene, recently released his second solo record, You Gots 2 Chill.
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