A Tin House New Voice and Random House New Face of Fiction for 2014, Us Conductors is "a beautiful, haunting novel" inspired by the true story of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen - creator of the theremin - and of Clara Rockmore - its greatest player.
Roving from Manhattan speakeasies to the Siberian taiga, from Alcatraz to the Kremlin, this is a book of love and electricity, jazz and espionage - filled with music, longing, and a little kung fu.
Winner of the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
$17 or less
"[Michaels] shows exceptional poise and command in his debut novel ... Both the voice and the stories it tells transcend the dusty contrivances of much historical fiction, resulting in a novel that feels both fresh and timeless." - Kirkus starred review
"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
"One of the most striking, lyrical and original literary debuts in recent memory." - Ian McGillis, Montreal Gazette
"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. Michaels’ voice will pass through you like live current and conduct you to parts unknown." - Carl Wilson, music critic for Slate and author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste
"A novel of epic proportions ... 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
"Simply tremendous ... You will want to read Sean Michaels' Us Conductors as soon as you can, both because it is a brilliant novel and because everyone will be talking about it." - Erin Aspenlieder, Literary Vice
"Gorgeous ... The prose sings and jumps, following our hero’s narrative like an elegant oscilloscope." - Henry Adam Svec, Vice
About the book
"I come from Leningrad. With my bare hands, I have killed one man. I was born on August 15, 1896, and at that instant I became an object moving through space toward you."
In a finely woven series of flashbacks and correspondence, Us Conductors takes us from the glitz and glam of New York in the 1930s to the gulags and scientific camps of the Soviet Union.
Lev Termen is imprisoned on a ship steaming its way from New York City to the Soviet Union. He is writing a letter to his "one true love," Clara Rockmore, the finest theremin player in the world. From there we learn Termen's story: his early days as a scientist in Leningrad, and the acclaim he received as the inventor of the theremin, eventually coming to New York under the aegis of the Russian state. There he stays, teaching eager music students, making his name, and swiftly falling in love with Clara. But it isn't long until he has fallen in with Russian spooks, slipping through the shadows of a budding Cold War, with cold-blooded results. The novel builds to a crescendo as Termen returns to Russia, where he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag and later brought to Moscow, tasked with eavesdropping on Stalin himself.
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?
Us Conductors is a story of: