cover image Us Conductors

Us Conductors

Sean Michaels. Tin House, $15.95 trade paper (456p) ISBN 978-1-935639-81-7

Michaels’s first novel glitters, threatens, and sometimes horrifies, but it lacks a center. The book is a fictionalized autobiography of Lev Sergeyvich Termen, the Russian scientist and inventor of the theremin, an eerie electronic musical instrument. Sent to America to demonstrate Soviet ingenuity and to make deals with Western investors, Lev enjoys the Prohibition-era high life and weathers the stock market crash of 1929, while reporting to his minders and spying as assigned. In a novel so deeply concerned with the Communism of Lenin and Stalin, it’s notable that Lev’s character has a near total absence of interest in questions of political economy and personal freedom. He progresses through many stages of use and abuse at the hands of his government, and then goes through a period of relatively benign imprisonment, surprised that a fellow inmate makes a point of refusing to volunteer for extra labor. Lev meets the love of his life in America, but he can’t make it work with her and doesn’t understand why. Perhaps his other marriages are part of the problem—and why does he keep marrying, anyway? Michaels renders historical moments that are interesting in themselves but ultimately can’t compensate for his opaque hero. (June)