November 12, 2014
Surprise winner of the Giller Prize tweets appropriately
by Sal Robinson
When Sean Michaels, debut author, learned that he’d won the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors, about the life and times of Lev Termen, inventor of the theremin, his response was remarkably in keeping with the subject of his novel.
Which is exactly how a theremin would tweet, and I’m not even going to go looking for a theremin with a Twitter account, because it is probably happening.
Anyway, Michaels had reason to be surprised: David Bezmozgis was also on the shortlist for the novel The Betrayers, the second time Bezmozgis had been in the running. (Boris Fishman recently described reading The Betrayers in The New York Times as like “gamboling down a dale hand in hand” with a unicorn, which I nominate for the very best piece of literary criticism of this year, and possibly of every year.) And Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows, which has been outselling the other nominees, had also been tipped as a favorite and possible winner.
But the chips fell Michaels’ way in the end, and they fell unanimously, with all three judges—Shauna Singh Baldwin, Justin Cartwright, and Francine Prose—voting for Us Conductors.
Michaels’ first novel follows Lev Termen through his stranger-than-fiction life; after inventing the theremin in the ‘20s at the Physical Technical Institute in the then-Petrograd, Termen took his instrument around Europe and to the United States, where he would play Carnegie Hall, hobnob with supporters like Albert Einstein and, eventually, encounter Clara Rockmore, a violinist who became the greatest theremin player of the era.
Though Termen would end up back in the Soviet Union, first in the gulag and then enlisted as a scientist in the espionage arms race of the Cold War (for which he invented a listening device that was located inside the Great Seal of the United States and hung in the US ambassador’s study in Moscow for seven years), it sounds like his love for Clara is the core of Michaels’ book. But not in a sweeping, romantic, it’s-just-you-me-and-the-theremin-baby type of way. Instead, interviewed for Maclean’s, Michaels described the book as about the idea of a “lying, true love”:
Reading about Theremin and seeing the documentary about him, I was struck by the fact that all these true stories of his life gestured toward this unconsummated true love with Clara Rockmore. I fundamentally did not believe that story, that it was unconsummated true love. They were both married to other people. But could I explore that idea of a lying, true love in a number of ways through the lens of this story? Not just the universe telling you you’re meant to be with this person, but what happens if you’re in a place of great darkness, and the only thing getting you through is a kind of lie?
Michaels, who is presumably not in a place of great darkness at the moment, is only the second debut novelist to win the Giller, after Joanna Skibsrud in 2010 for The Sentimentalists. Skibsrud was published by Gaspereau Press, a small press which prints all their books on Vandercook letterpresses in-house, and Gaspereau’s ability to keep up with the orders after the Giller news came in became itself a news story (which MobyLives covered here).
Michaels won’t have that problem: he is published by Random House Canada, and the rest of the shortlist, somewhat disturbingly, was dominated by big houses: HarperCollins Canada had three authors on it, Random House had two, and Knopf Canada rounded it out with one. Still, it seems like there’s room for independent publishers, as The Sentimentalists and last year’s win by Lynn Coady‘s Hell Going, published by indie House of Anansi, indicate.
Michaels, meanwhile, responded to the news not only with tweets but also with a whole series of similes, from the first words of his acceptance speech where he described feeling “like a whale who has found a whole city in his mouth” to his post-prize interview, where he compared the moment he heard the announcement to being in “a snowglobe [that] everyone had suddenly shaken up.” Proof enough that in moments of great excitement the resources of fiction will still, eventually, trump the desire to just yell theremincally with joy.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.