Us Conductors notably plays fast and loose with its label as historical fiction. Michaels freely admits in his Author’s Note that the Termen he depicts is highly fictionalized—no kung fu or murder is on record, as far as we know—and points the reader in the direction of a more vanilla accounting of Termen’s real life. It seems, sometimes, like authors of historical fiction can’t win. No matter how close one adheres to historical fact, one invariably becomes the target of a pedant who wants to note how inaccurate one’s story is. Conversely, admitting to inaccuracies only seems to drive the sticklers ever more wild. I personally don’t mind either way, as long as you’re honest—it’s when you pull a Dan Brown and claim everything in your book is 100% researched and factual that I’m liable to get bloodthirsty.
The Termen of Us Conductors is a lonely, bold sort of man. Thanks to the first-person narration, we get precious few observations about Termen that don’t come from Termen himself. It’s easy at times to forget that this story is entirely a letter, even when Termen slips into using the second person to address Clara. Yet if you step back from the story and look only at its brushstrokes, its epistolary undertones are evident in the way Termen elides certain events and delves deeply into others. This creates a kind of pseudo-meditative tone to the entire piece that makes it classic Giller Prize nominee material.
Though capitulating to such conventions of literary fiction, the book is not actually as dull as I feared. I hadn’t heard of it prior to its Giller win, and even then I wasn’t all that interested in reading it (quite frankly, Heather O’Neill’s latest excited me more, because I loved Lullabies for Little Criminals). But I admit I was intrigued by a story about the inventor of the theremin, an instrument that has an almost “cult” status when it comes to music. Michaels tries to describe how amazing this invention must have seemed, both to its inventor and his contemporary audience: a musical instrument that makes sound from electricity, modulated by the body’s own electric field. It is magic through science. The title itself is a play on words, “conductors” having so many connotations in this story.
Beyond Termen’s invention, though, is the matter of his loyalty to Mother Russia and his presence in the US as a spy. Michaels captures the fragmented political state of Russia both before and after World War II: Termen’s handlers change inexplicably, as if he is just a pawn in a larger power struggle within the spy apparatus back home. After he returns to Russia, the NKVD arrests him and tortures him until he “confesses” to being an American spy. I appreciate that Michaels restricts himself to using such situations for his social commentary. He could have included numerous fictional conversations between Termen and others if he wanted to conduct an ideological debate within the pages of this book, but that’s not what happens. Us Conductors isn’t about the failure of communism, or its rise or its fall. It presents the distinctiveness of communism in contrast to America’s rampant and illusory capitalist dream through the eyes of a Termen simultaneously bitter about and resigned to returning to Russia.
His problem, of course, is this: he claims to love Russia, and he claims to love Clara. How, then, can he balance their reciprocal claims to his heart, body, time? Clara seems to have taken herself out of the equation, for she marries another. Yet Termen’s ”love” for her borders on a kind of transference of his fascination with the theremin. I think, deep down, he secretly views the theremin as an apotheosis of musical instruments. (I get this from the excitement he feels when talking about the theremin’s prospects for bringing equality in music to the worker. Termen might have enjoyed the lifestyle of America, but he seems pretty straightforward in his support of communist ethics.) So Termen is disappointed by the lacklustre uptake in the theremin. Everyone’s initial reaction is gratifying, and certainly at one point there are numerous companies courting him for contracts. Yet, somehow, it all fizzles out. And even though there are a few thereminists like Clara still making it, they and the theremin eclipse the inventor (as most creations inevitably do).
Maybe I’m wrong and my scepticism over his love for Clara is unfounded. It just seems dubious, considering he marries two other women and still carries the torch for her as “the one who got away.” At the very least, it speaks to the gradations and diversity of love as a concept that most romantic comedies and a lot of literature fail to honour: there is more than the most straightforward type of romantic love or the safest type of platonic love out there, and the shades between them are usually more interesting anyway.
If you step back and regard Us Conductors in this light, as the story of a particularly unique Russian emigre who just happens to have sidelines of spying and later gets imprisoned back home under Stalin’s regime … then that’s where this book succeeds. As a story of Termen, it cannot ever be great—it’s too fictionalized, after all. As a love story, it has none of the arc or resolution that one would want. As a tragedy, it is hopelessly uplifting. Only as a snapshot of the curious confluences of history and society that made Termen’s type of immigration possible does Us Conductors approach the type of greatness deserving of a literary prize. Do I think it should have won? I don’t know. Nor do I particularly care. What matters is that it’s a good, pretty solid work of character-driven fiction. It’s the kind of book you want to pass with a dreary Sunday afternoon with while you put on a classical album (maybe Rachmaninoff?) and sip a cup of tea.
Or that just might be me. That’s probably just me.