Before beginning Sean Michaels’ book Us Conductors (2014), it is helpful to know the protagonist, Lev Sergeyevich Termin, did, in fact, exist and that much of the novel is culled from his biography. Without this information, the narrative seems a work of pure fiction: incredible, perhaps even contrived. A Soviet scientist and musician who creates an instrument “played” via the electromagnetic energy of the human body, who tours the United States and Europe meeting and collaborating with countless luminaries of the 1920s and 1930s and marries an African-American dancer, all the while working as a spy for Mother Russia. And he is a deadly kung-fu master capable of killing with his bare hands. That last detail was added by Michaels, as he explains in his acknowledgements. It is difficult to understand why, when the true story provided ample raw material from which to construct the skeleton of a fascinating narrative, the author would feel the need to pad his novel with the shopworn stock of action films instead of penetrating the facts themselves, mining them for the many larger questions they raise about art, identity, inspiration, nationalism and love.
Michaels merely brushes against these questions, in a manner that seems more puzzling than provocative. Early in the novel, Lev recognizes that his electromagnetic instrument, the theremin, has the capacity to bring music, formerly the domain of the elite, to the people, thereby aligning his invention with the Communist cause:
Around the world millions of workers who are fascinated by music are demoralized by the challenges of traditional instruments […] Because it trusts the worker’s own senses, not the knowledge locked away in the lessons and textbooks of the elites, the theremin becomes a revolutionary device – a leveling of the means of musical production.
This recognition could have served as fertile ground for a meditation upon the role of traditional music-making in a mechanized world, stimulating the reader to ask herself whether art should be a lifelong pursuit – the realm of single-minded geniuses – or a level playing field, accessible to all in their spare time. But this is the only place in which the novel even ventures into this subject, and as soon as the assertion is made, the narrative quickly changes course and rushes on through other more mundane events. It is as if the novel is concerned with hitting the highlights of the true story, with checking off each item on the real Termen’s CV, leaving little space to dwell upon the implications of those events. Even Lev himself, who is narrating the story, seems disinclined to reflect upon these matters, often contradicting himself later in the novel. For example, his emphasis upon the amount of patience, skill and dedication it takes to master the theremin (as well as the exclusivity of his concerts for the American aristocracy) seems to run counter to his earlier idea of this mass-produced instrument as a tool in the people’s struggle. His fall back to the traditional model of virtuosic inspiration is never explored, for instance as an admission that the instrument did not live up to his hopes for it, and the reader is left grasping.
Without this kind of reflection on deeper questions, the character of Lev falls flat among a cast of flat characters. The historical figures sprinkled throughout the story – Gershwin, Rachmaninoff, Toscanini, Ravel, Chaplin, and Valéry, to name a few – seem to amount to mere name-dropping. Even the love interest, Clara Rockmore, the person to whom the entire narrative is addressed, is a rather vague and lifeless personage, her motives and Lev’s attraction to her only superficially explored.
The prose contains moments of pure poetry tucked into some dense and rather tangled paragraphs. Wading through the forced similes piled one on top of another can be exhausting, but once uncovered, these musical passages soar, revealing a vivid imagination and passion for language. Passages such as:
Here I am an idle man in a cabin, writing stories on this typewriter. Leaving rows of sentences, months passing in ellipses… I do not know what forces are in play. I do not see the looming icebergs, the coming storms. Sometimes I wake in the night and I wonder if we are sinking. It would be a long time before I would know that we were sinking. You can become a dead man before you know what you are.
All of which builds to a satisfying finish for the novel as a whole. Thus, despite the imprecision of the prose, its lyricism gives us cause to hope this debut author will continue to hone his craft, producing, in years to come, works of powerful imagery, exquisite language and deft penetration of the human condition.