Monday, November 23, 2015

Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Although I had been putting it off, I decided to finally read last year's Giller Prize winner because I was invited to see the author speak last weekend.  First, let me tell you, if you have an opportunity to see Michaels speak, you should jump on it.  He was an extremely entertaining story teller - more interesting in person than his book.

I had been avoiding reading the book at first when I found out it was about the inventor of the theremin because I didn't even know what a theremin was (for some reason I assumed it was some sort of obscure element - I have no idea why since elements aren't really invented).  In fact, the theremin is a very early form of electronic instrument which is played by moving your hands through electrical fields that surround it.  There was a demonstration of the theremin at the talk - it sounded rather squeaky and awful (more like a special effects machine than a musical instrument).  However I understand in the hands of certain masters it can sound quite wonderful.

The book itself is about the inventor, Lev Termen, and his unrequited love of one of these master players, Clara.  It is a fictional account interspersed with factual aspects.  The narrator, Termen is a Russian scientist who experiments with gadgets, especially vacuum tubes, from a very young age.  He happens upon the theremin which brings him notoriety in his own country (even meeting Lenin at one point).  The Russian government decides to send him around Europe and eventually to the US to show off and sell his theremin but also to spy for the Soviets.

The book is written as a letter from Termen to Clara when he is on the boat returning to the Soviet Union and in the years following that.  But it looks back on his early years in Russia, his time in the US and forward to his return to the Soviet Union.  In the US Termen is first given a hero's welcome - he lives at the Plaza Hotel and performs for all of the financial elite.  He invents further gadgets (like a security system for Alcatraz) and uses the relationships he builds to obtain information for the Soviet government.  He also meets Clara - a violinist many years younger than him who becomes one of the best theremin players of all time.  As we only hear Termen's point of view it is hard to tell whether his strong feelings for her are ever reciprocated but it seemed not to me.

With the arrival of the Depression Termen falls on hard financial times - he owes all sorts of money and is unable to sell his inventions.  Alcatraz even asks for a return of its advance as they are not happy with his system.  He also runs into visa issues and his handlers recommend marriage.  When Clara will not marry him, he marries another woman but ends up leaving her in the middle of the night just as he abandoned his first wife (it is a little unclear whether he actually divorced anyone before he married others).  When he hits rock bottom, he is "kidnapped" and returns to the Soviet Union.  Again because we only have the narrator's perspective it is unclear how unhappy he is about this (he doesn't seem that troubled about leaving his second wife though he clearly pines after Clara).

In the Soviet Union, things only get worse.  He becomes entrapped in Stalin's gulag spending time in Siberia then years in a prison for scientists where he is forced to invent gadgets that further the Soviet agenda.

I liked this book but I didn't love it.  I have read several first person narrated books lately and I'm growing a bit tired of the rather narrow perspective this affords.  Especially after hearing Michaels speak about it, I understand why he chose to tell this story from the perspective of one rather unreliable narrator (Termen was both naive at times and a liar).  However, I might have preferred to get a broader view of what was happening in Termen's life.  That being said, I still think the book is worth reading.

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