Sean Michaels’ prose invites readers to participate in the relationship between sound and shape through the simple but beautiful language of Us Conductors.
His images are simple and fresh, and they are momentarily disorienting – as beautiful things can be.
“I didn’t laugh but you did, a laugh like a tumbling kite.”
That is Lev Sergeyvich Termen who does not laugh. But simply because he appears to be still does not mean there isn’t a current racing through his body when he sees this kite, this dragonfly aloft.
“When it was your turn, you played Mendelssohn. Your bow was a dragonfly. I felt my heart skimmed, skimmed, skimmed.”
Lev has long been fascinated by passion one step removed, an expression of tremendous beauty that is not-quite graspable. His proximity to the intensity changes him, as fascinations often do.
“Professor Vasilyev must have recognized my fascination, because one holiday he let me take a vacuum tube home. I kept it wrapped in butcher paper, strolling with it in my jacket pocket, one hand resting over it, and in my mind’s eye it was an emerald.”
Sometimes the element of sound is also tactile in its presentation: “For thirty-eight days the rails went clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack clack and then we reached the sea and things got much worse.”
Other times a rhythm infuses the prose with a more subtle energy. “They counted us. They counted us again.”
(And although sound is the sense which pervades this novel, other sensory details enrich the reader’s understanding of the breadth of settings and experiences explored. As when one character is observed “cracking crabs’ terracotta shells with his bare hands, sopping crabmeat in butter”.)
Us Conductors is not only preoccupied by the ways in which the human body can shape and release sound, but also the ways in which it conducts energy, electricity.
“You let your fascination express itself as stillness, steady stillness, like a lake gone smooth. Your violin sat in its case, near the points of your shoes. Only the corners of your lips showed your sparking heart.”
Readers are introduced to stillness and sparking via the secrets of the theremin and its inventor.
“This is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor.”
The theremin might not be as well known as a violin, but its unforgettable sound makes up for its low-profile in the world of musical instruments.
“The sound of the theremin is simply pure electric current. It is the hymn of lightning as it hides in its cloud. The song never strains or falters; it persists, stays, keeps, lasts, lingers. It will never abandon you.
In that regard, it is better than any of us.”
In a novel preoccupied with sound, the corollary of silence is accorded a special status as well.
“There is a simple pause, like the one in Chopin’s op. 28, no. 7, a pause like the passing of autumn into winter, a pause like other pauses I have known, before Red locks the door.”
Not only is stillness relevant in the novel in terms of plot, representing the spaces in which action pauses, but in characterization too.
“She loved my intelligence, my confidence, the pencil I carried in my shirt pocket. She loved the quiet she saw in me.”
This stillness is exhibited in elements of the novel’s setting as well, particularly in the circumstances under which the narrative is being assembled but elsewhere too.
“A depression does not show itself instantly. The banks had not been replaced with soup kitchens. The clock towers had not stopped. But there were more men sitting in the streets, on stoops and curbs, even on that icy Tuesday. Like in the days after the Revolution settled, in Leningrad, weather seemed less important. People walked in the rain. They shivered in the sun. They scanned newsstands’ newspaper headlines with fragile faces, awaiting disaster.”
Historical figures inhabit Us Conductors alongside the main character:
“I taught Somerset Maugham about magnets and Sergei Eisenstein about rust. I served black tea and gingerbread to Maurice Martenot, inventor of the brilliant but capricious Ondes Martenot organ. He asked for salt and pepper. Schillinger lectured on aesthetics and harmony.”
But Sean Michael’s includes a declaration of lies in the author’s note: “This book is a work of fiction. It is full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.”
This declaration is necessary (and the inclusion of resource materials useful) but readers of Us Conductors will respond viscerally to this work nonetheless. This creation of another version of what has already been, the artistry which emerges when one forgets the history and creates something new with parts of what has been before, is quite remarkable.
“I felt then what I have felt many times since. It is the moment you forget the electricity, the conducting metals and skipping electrons, the tubes and wires and fundamental principles, standing with hands in pockets you forget these things and for a hot, proud instant you think it is you who did this, who made the tubes glow, you clever mouse.”
Sean Michaels: clever mouse, rememberer of theremins.