- Emergent Fiction
Two of the year’s most inventive novels by emerging writers, Sean Michaels’s Giller Prize-winning Us Conductors and Steven Galloway’s The Confabulist, begin from the biographies of larger-than-life historical figures known for their specialized skills and dazzling performances: respectively, the Russian scientist and musician Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin; and the Hungarian-American illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini. The books share other intriguing similarities. Both are set mostly in the United States and Russia, with Canada barely a footnote, and both are populated by famous figures of the early twentieth century: George Gershwin, Nelson Rockefeller, V.I. Lenin, and others in the former; Arthur Conan Doyle and members of the doomed Romanov dynasty, among others, in the latter. Both narratives involve secret professional assignments within prisons, combine arcane technical pursuits with deeply lamented amorous ones, and reveal (or invent) the fact that their protagonists were coerced into working as spies. But these two biofictions’ most fascinating similarity is their creative play with the idea of invention: beyond Termen’s and Houdini’s evident professional inventiveness is a concern the two novelists share with the invention of the self, both in life and in story, by the self and by others. Michaels, who announces from the outset that “this book is mostly inventions,” closes it by admitting to “play[ing] fast and loose with the facts” of [End Page 176] Termen’s life in “a work of fiction … full of distortions, elisions, omissions, and lies.” His Termen is a murderer, a kung fu fighter, and other things the real one never was. In Galloway’s novel, his invention of a second main character, modelled after (but distinct from) the McGill University student who purportedly killed Houdini with an ill-timed punch, transforms the magician’s often-told life story into a provocative exploration of the ways memories of the ever-vanishing past—not unlike the arts of the magician, the spy, and the novelist—conceal in order to reveal.
Us Conductors confidently inhabits contrasting social worlds: from the roaring twenties, when Termen performs with his newfangled electronic instrument before dignitaries, scientists, musicians, and glitterati in New York City and points west, to a harsh Siberian work camp in the thirties, where only his inventor’s mind and the kindness of others save him from starving or freezing to death. Termen’s description of playing his machine not only gives the novel its title but combines the spirit of the capitalist, commodity-culture America of the time with the equalizing ethos of Soviet communism:
The theremin is a musical instrument, an instrument of the air. … [A]lways you are standing with your hands in the air, like a conductor. That is the secret of the theremin, after all: your body is a conductor. … Around the world millions of workers who are fascinated by music are demoralized by the challenges of traditional instruments. Little is intuitive about the keys on a clarinet, the fretless neck of a cello. But the theremin! There is an innate simplicity to it. The closer your hand to the tall antenna, the higher the pitch; the farther away, the lower the pitch. Because it trusts the worker’s own senses, not the knowledge locked away in the lessons and textbooks of the elites, the theremin becomes a revolutionary device—a leveling of the means of musical production.
Yes, I imagined a theremin in every home.
Termen’s first-person narrative is framed as a love letter to his protege and enduring love, Clara, whom he trains to be his instrument’s preeminent performer but who leaves their incipient relationship for another man, to his unending regret throughout his subsequent marriages. The letter, recounting his years falling in love with Clara, with New York, and with the theremin’s ethereal music, is begun on board the ship taking him home to Soviet Russia and completed after his near-miraculous escape from the harrowing “corrective labour camp.” The prose through which Michaels channels Termen’s voice is well suited to the scientist’s analytical, problem-solving mind, and it briskly evokes the flavour of places and of the...