Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize
A beautiful, haunting novel inspired by the true life and loves of the famed Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen – creator of the theremin.
Us Conductors takes us from the glamour of Jazz Age New York to the gulags and science prisons of the Soviet Union. On a ship steaming its way from Manhattan back to Leningrad, Lev Termen writes a letter to his “one true love”, Clara Rockmore, telling her the story of his life. Imprisoned in his cabin, he recalls his early years as a scientist, inventing the theremin and other electric marvels, and the Kremlin’s dream that these inventions could be used to infiltrate capitalism itself. Instead, New York infiltrated Termen – he fell in love with the city’s dance clubs and speakeasies, with the students learning his strange instrument, and with Clara, a beautiful young violinist. Amid ghostly sonatas, kung-fu tussles, brushes with Chaplin and Rockefeller, a mission to Alcatraz, the novel builds to a crescendo: Termen’s spy games fall apart and he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper toward the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.
Us Conductors is a book of longing and electricity. Like Termen’s own life, it is steeped in beauty, wonder and looping heartbreak. How strong is unrequited love? What does it mean when it is the only thing keeping you alive? This sublime debut inhabits the idea of invention on every level, no more so than in its depiction of Termen’s endless feelings for Clara – against every realistic odd. For what else is love, but the greatest invention of all?
“Michaels’ book is based on the life of Lev Termen, the Russian-born inventor of the Theremin, the most ethereal of musical instruments. As the narrative shifts countries and climates, from the glittery brightness of New York in the 1920s to the leaden cold of the Soviet Union under Stalin, the grace of Michaels’s style makes these times and places seem entirely new. He succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do: he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”
—Giller Prize Jury Citation
FINALIST 2014 – Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction
FINALIST 2014 – Concordia University First Book Prize
LONGLISTED 2015 – International DUBLIN Literary Award
“Following the life of Leon Termen, the inventor of the theremin, Us Conductors takes the reader from Leningrad to New York City, from gulags to speakeasies, dance floors and concert stages to laboratories and cattle cars. Us Conductors stretches its arms to encompass nearly everything—it is an immigrant tale, an epic, a spy intrigue, a prison confession, an inventor’s manual, a creation myth, and an obituary—but the electric current humming through its heart is an achingly resonant love story. Sean Michaels orchestrates his first novel like a virtuoso.”
—Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
“A fascinating novel! Told with grace and confidence, and in a finely wrought voice, Us Conductors kept surprising me to the end. I was swept from the speakeasies and artistic fervor of 1930s Manhattan to bleak, secretive Soviet Union prisons, and never once was the illusion shattered. Throughout the story, the themes of love and music sing like the pure, ethereal notes of the theremin.”
—Eowyn Ivey, author of the New York Times bestseller The Snow Child
“Sean Michaels revisits the story of Lev Termen with just the right amount of distortion and invention, drawing a fascinating parabola through the Roaring Twenties and down into the Cold War. An amazing, addictive novel, written with a sharp sense of rhythm.”
—Nicolas Dickner, author of Nikolski and Apocalypse for Beginners
“DZEEEEOOOoo! Just as hard as it is to make a theremin sing so it is hard to pull off a novel like this. But Sean Michaels does it. Us Conductors bridges body and soul, science and art, and like theremin music, it’s of this world and magical at the same time.”
—Ismet Prcic, author of Shards
“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. . . . Whatever picture Michaels is trying to paint, he does so with great accuracy and potency. . . . 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. . . . To come totally clean here, I forgot I wasn’t reading an autobiography and took in the story as if it were historical fact. . . . 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, The Globe and Mail
“I’ve been awaiting a book by Sean Michaels for a decade, ever since he helped create not only the online MP3 blog but his own form of criticism—imaginative, bird-like devices of prose that soar in and out of the paths of songs. In his novel, Us Conductors, Michaels finds his ideal subject in another inventor, the enigmatic Leon Termen, who with softly lit-up wisdom calls himself ‘a sound being sounded, music being made,’ amid the noise of history. Michaels’ voice will pass through you like live current and conduct you to parts unknown.”
—Carl Wilson, music critic for Slate.com and author of the acclaimed Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste