Us Conductors. Sean Michaels.

Michaels.Michaels, Sean. Us Conductors. Random House Canada, Toronto. 2014. Electronic version retrieved for Kindle. F; 7/15.

I found odd coincidental similarities between this Giller-shortlisted novel and the last book I read, All the Light We Cannot See. We have in both a brilliant electrical technician inventor in the mid-20th century whose work brings him great rewards in the service of a totalitarian government. The main character existed historically and invented some of the things we find in this story, but it’s fictionalized and so we understand that some of the politics and also the major love interest are, here quite nicely, rearranged onto center stage by the author. There is some lovely writing and fine sentiments, but for me it finally falls a bit short of knocking my lowcut summer socks off.

Lev Termin (or Leon Theremin) invented an early electronic musical instrument played by manipulating the hands in electric fields. He spent a decade in New York, demonstrating and selling his instrument, apparently making a fortune, and hobnobbing with the likes of Einstein and Gershwin, but overseen by shadowy Russian spies. Along the way he separates from his first wife, meets and falls in love with Clara who is eventually the most compelling virtuoso on his musical instrument, gets into trouble with the Russians, and in about 1937 is deported and imprisoned in Siberia. The contrast between New York high society and the Gulag is pretty fabulous. Eventually through his creative technical smarts Lev finds his way back into favor with the authorities and actually gets back to the US where he sees Clara again.

Mr. Michaels is a gifted dramatic storyteller. Some chapters end with blockbusting impact: “And then I met you.” “At the end of October, America collapsed.”

Gradually I found myself in a circle of music tutors from the Institute who were gossiping and laughing but squinting as they laughed, as if hiding the fact that nothing was actually funny.

One does not intentionally squander a life; one looks back and finds it squandered.

A lovely emotional double hairpin turn occurs when Theremin decides on a whim to visit his estranged first wife Katia, finds her chilly, but then suddenly senses the old closeness between them. He admits his affair, and she turns and walks away without a word.

It’s very rare I find to read a novel where that kind of writing and emotional cadence and control are also carried along by a wonderful overall dramatic flow. This has to be especially hard to do writing with the constraint of historic events. I started to be bothered by tediousness in the later time in New York. The Cadillac, the concerts, the blinis and caviar, the champagne, the world-famous guests dropping by in the middle of the night… I’m not sure I can characterize what bothered me exactly, but there didn’t seem to be quite enough exploring of Leon’s inner world to balance or make realistic a Russian technical nerd’s experience of such a life. And it seemed to drag on.

The subsequent description of the prisons and transportation to them on the other hand was horrifyingly real. The last time I remember reading anything so fabulously physically repulsive was in Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Overall? Like so much fiction I read, this was good, at times really great, but ended up missing me by a small but definite margin. 8.2/8.4.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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