Us Conductors: Beautiful writing, extraordinary narration

You will want to read Sean Michaels’ *Us Conductors* as soon as you can (in April of 2014) both because it is a brilliant novel and because everyone will be talking about it and you’re going to want to be hip and have already read the latest ‘hot’ book.

You will want to read *Us Conductors* because its plot — the first person narration of Lev Sergeyvich Termen (Dr Theremin) as he recounts his life, including the invention and dissemination of the theremin; a recounting that takes place  while literally held captive and metaphorically captive by the things he did and didn’t do in his past — because its plot is similarly captivating: espionage, American in the 20s, successful men and the things they can buy, romance-lust-and-longing, war stories and suffering. These descriptors make the plot seem sweeping. The plot is not sweeping. Instead by following our humble, sad and utterly sympathetic first person narrator, the events read as intimate and specific, even while we recognize them as extraordinary.

In its plot and narration (I’ll get there in a minute) the book asks the compelling questions: what makes for a significant life? how can we correct mistakes of omission? who is responsible for our actions and inactions? how can we reconcile the drive for beauty and love with the desire for wealth and fame? These are questions that grapple with the boundary between the extraordinary and the intimate that get worked out again and again in the novel: For instance Lev’s imprisonment in the Soviet gulag is marked by the dehumanizing and impersonal that recall the historical moment – hunger, thirst, savagery. And his release reads as arbitrary – both a result of the caprice of Lev and the despotic of the Russian rulers – even while the reader must know that for the narrative (and we do know because its narrated retrospectively from relative comfort and safety) to continue he must live and must escape or be released: with both escape and release being quite extraordinary.

The story manages to achieve this subsumption (or perhaps misdirection) of the extraordinary into the particular (and so relatable and sympathetic) through masterful – really – narration. *Us Conductors* presents the best use of the second person I’ve ever read and uses the first person confessional with genius confidence and impact. The second person is used to address the “you” of Clara Reisenberg, the woman Lev loves and longs for. The early establishment of the you as Clara cuts some of the usual complaint that the second person can be so direct as to cause discomfort for the reader; likewise, the “you” is balanced against the first person so as to not overwhelm. These reasons suggest the “you” is only effective in what it doesn’t do, but I should say the “you” is incredible here for what it does achieve: it evokes melancholy and loss without naming melancholy or loss, it establishes the depth of love without explaining the depth of love and it signals the primacy of Clara in Lev’s understanding of his life: for all of his extraordinary accomplishments he, like the reader, makes sense of his world through his love for Clara, the smallest (and grandest) of intimacies.

For all that it does do, the second person also renders Clara’s thoughts and reactions curiously absent from the narrative. As much as we know of Lev’s love, we’re never entirely sure how Clara feels. We only know her through Lev’s interpretation and the scenes we get of her behaviour. It is difficult – though not in an unsatisfying way – as a reader to determine how Clara actually feels and how Lev wants Clara to feel or how he imagines her to feel. This ignorance speaks to a larger question with the first person confessional and that is the reliability of our narrator. While we can trust the sequence of plot events  we cannot be sure of the causes of these events: how much is Lev leaving out of his confession to Clara that might explain the dramatic turns his life takes? How much can be explained by the (again) arbitrary power of the Soviet state?

These questions of reliability and narrative causality get worked out in the title of the novel itself. If we read *Us Conductors* as “those who conduct us”  (the ‘us’ here read as Lev and all of “us”, including the reader) we might see the authoritarian power of the state and its agents as they direct (and misdirect) Lev. But if we read the title as “I, who conduct us through this story”  (the ‘us’ in this instance being Lev and Clara) we can see instead Lev’s attempt to exercise authority over his own life, to take ownership for the opportunities he squandered with Clara, the things he could have said and done, the attempts he made to make his life – to conduct his life – the way he wanted to. I suppose you could read the title, too, as “U.S. Conductors” and think about the United States and Russia and the plot elements of espionage that bring immediacy and historicity to the plot. All this to say it’s a title that didn’t (at first) grab me, but ultimately reveals the complexity of plot, narration and theme at work in the novel.

The question of what we trust in Lev’s narration also gestures to what we as readers ought to take away from this fictionalized history. As a reader without – any – existing knowledge of Lev Termen or the invention of the theremin I confess to being less enthusiastic about beginning the novel than I might have been if I’d known anything of the history (or present) of Lev and the theremin. That said, I approached the novel as a reader of fiction – I genuinely supposed that Lev and Clara were invented characters and the theremin a sort of magical-fictional instrument (though somewhere in the recesses of my cultural memory I thought I’d heard of such a device). Sorting out what is factual from what is fictional shouldn’t trouble you as a reader, either, in part because the narrative points of view makes it impossible to confuse this with straight history telling and in part because the ‘what is fact’ question gets lost in the absolute humanity – and empathy – of Lev’s story and his love. My only complaint is that the novel includes a ‘post script’ (and I do hate the epilogue) that, were I student of history, I might fact check to find out if the list in the post script is “what really happened.” The effect of the post-script is to announce “this was historical!” in a way that undercuts the timelessness and intimacy of the story; the post-script also effectively takes the poignancy out of the conclusion to the novel because it assures the reader that everything eventually worked out (sort of). The reader should be trusted to either do the historical fact-checking on their own if they deemed it important to know what came next OR to allow the last page of the novel to be the last page of the story: a conclusion as poignant as I’ve read them.

It is with this poignancy that I’ll end this review: this is poignant writing. What do I mean by that? I mean it is beautiful, grasping, fresh and sharp writing. Michaels’ use of short sentences, of repetition, of original comparisons and apt metaphors require the reader to routinely stop, reread, reimagine and to take a breath. There are simply gorgeous sentences in this book. It’s a kind of lyrical writing with a beat and pulse that appropriately mirrors the musical subject matter, but also an inventive use of language that aligns with the themes of creation and fit-for-use discovery. It is simply tremendous writing that allows the other, excellent, elements of the book – the plot, narration and historical blend – to shine. Go get it. In April.



Filed under Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Giller prize, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

4 responses to “Us Conductors: Beautiful writing, extraordinary narration

  1. Jane aspenlieder

    Personally, I found the short sentence style choppy and irritating. True, there were treasure sentences, but they were buried in amongst superfluous ones that added length and not substance to the novel.

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