The first song I ever loved was The Oak Ridge Boys’ “Y’all Come Back Saloon,” a huge county hit in the late seventies, when I was barely out of diapers and just beginning to cut my musical teeth. Being three years old, I knew nothing of heartache or regret or jaded, raven-haired temptresses, but I sang along with every mysterious word of the Oaks’ Sunday-morning harmonies. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t relate to the lyrics; there was something about the sound of it, the way it shimmered and swayed, that beguiled me. I’ve had a couple of brushes with the things that make for good country songs since my preschool days, so now I can appreciate “Y’all Come Back Saloon” on another level. Still, whenever I hear it, or any tune with the familiar sonic template of the 70s Nashville hit machine–bright, polished harmonies on a bed of lilting fiddle and steel-guitar–it triggers memories from my early childhood, a time when everything was golden and new.
Though his style of music is a far cry from the Oak Ridge Boys’, Leon Termen, the narrator of Sean Michaels’ new novel Us Conductors, could surely write a good country song. This is a character who knows a thing or two about heartache and regret, learned the hard way from a life of unrequited love, betrayal, regret, and even a little murder. For Dr. Termen, a scientist, musician, and the inventor of the theremin, memory and music are similarly entwined. Living in New York city in the 1920s as an ambassador for his inventions and a reluctant spy, Dr. Termen’s life is saturated with music, from the chamber music he plays to packed houses on his theremin to the jazz and big-band sound to which New York swings. Much of this music is alien to him. After hearing a jazz band in a basement club, the classically-trained Termen muses “My life’s first drum solo. The whole world seemed in the process of being rebuilt.”
It isn’t long before that new world comes crashing down around him. When he inadvertently runs afoul of his Soviet handlers, Dr. Termen is yanked away from his American life and sent back to Russia. There he is ultimately betrayed by the very government he’d supported since his days as a youthful revolutionary and sent to a series of prisons, including a hellish Siberian gulag. Through it all, Termen is haunted by the memory of the much younger Clara Reisenberg, the world’s first true virtuoso of the instrument he invented. It’s fitting then, that the theremin, which gets its sound not from a plucked string but from its own magnetic field interacting with the person playing it, best gives voice to Termen’s loss. “Like the pallor of an electric light bulb,” he writes, “like the heat of an electric stove, the theremin’s sound is a stranger to the earth.” That otherworldly siren-song quality is what made the theremin a mainstay of early electronic music experiments, psychedelic rock freak-outs, and B movie science fiction scores. It also gives the theremin a mournful timbre, and this”strangeness is in the sound…acute…at once unmodulated and modulating…both still and frantic,” making it a perfect voice for singing a song as sad as this one.
When it comes to his life story, Dr. Termen conducts his own symphony. The novel, a work of fiction only very loosely based on the facts of the real Dr. Termen’s life, is conceived as a letter to Clara. As Termen constructs a narrative of his life around his longing for Clara, the novel explores the subjectivity of memory and the way the past sings to us from across the years. Like Adam Johnson’s brilliant novel The Orphan Master’s Son, which also features a political prisoner forced to tell the story of the crimes he didn’t commit, Us Conductors examines individuality in the face of brutal government oppression. Stripped of nearly everything that makes him recognizable to himself, Termen internalizes his memories of the past and creates a narrative of his life as a means of hanging on to it. Throughout his ordeal, Termen, who never once includes Clara when he writes about his time in New York so that his jailers can chronicle his crimes, clings to his secret yearning for her until it begins to define his life.
It lags in spots, most notably just after Termen returns to Russia, but Us Conductors is an impressive debut, a novel as somber and haunting as the voice of the theremin itself. Though the Clara at the center of the novel may have little in common with the real Clara Reisenberg (later Clara Rockmore) after reading Us Conductors it’s difficult to listen to her play the theremin, conjuring that mournful sound from the ether, without hearing the terrible longing of the man who gave it its voice.