Nikola Tesla was one of those rare humans of whom it could be said he was too strange and marvelous to ever be a believable fictional character.
The Invention of Everything ElsePublisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Author: Samantha Hunt
US publication date: 2009-03
The Invention of Everything Else is an intricate and delicate mechanism that isn’t quite perfected. It tells the story, fragmentarily, of the legendarily great and eccentric scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla -- one of those rare human beings of whom it could truly be said that he was too strange and too marvelous to ever be a believable fictional character.
Called, among other things, “the man who invented the 20th Century,” Tesla was one of the major forces behind the miracle of wireless transmission and X-rays, and also bested Thomas Edison in the battle to invent a workable form of electrical power.
He was an intimate of Mark Twain, an antagonist of both Edison and Albert Einstein, an obsessive-compulsive eccentric who might have loved pigeons more than people, and, late in his life, a tinkerer with death rays and anti-gravity devices. Some people thought he was from the future; others that he was from Venus, though late in life he attempted to communicate instead with Mars. He and his more-speculative inventions are, to this day, the subject of an impressive number of conspiracy theories.
Samantha Hunt, then, takes on an enormous task in telling his story through fiction rather than, as scores of other authors have, in the form of a biography. She then redoubles her challenge by interweaving the story of a chambermaid in the Hotel New Yorker, where Tesla lived out his last years in penury; and the chambermaid’s father who, with his childhood friend, an eccentric inventor, conduct experiments with a time machine; and the ghost of Mark Twain; and a mysterious visitor who might be from the future but who is not (as the time-machine inventor also is not) Nikola Tesla.
It all gets to be a bit too much; Tesla and his colleagues and rivals, and perhaps the chambermaid, Louisa, who snoops in his room and later befriends him, would have been enough of a story. But Hunt, a bit of a basement tinkerer herself, keeps on adding more and more gears and blinking lights and mysterious switches until it becomes difficult to determine exactly what her confabulation is intended to accomplish.
Here and there, Hunt’s writing can be fragile and a bit too precious to accommodate all of the complicated themes she’s attempting to convey. Late in the novel, for example, she depicts Louisa attempting to absorb her beloved father’s death from an experiment gone horribly awry:
“Tiny silver threads, a spider’s web, she thinks. Strands of coincidence that are like a piece of lace holding the world together exactly as it is in this second here.” And, a page later, “(s)he doesn’t dare touch (her father’s) pillow. She worries her touch might erase the things that he stored there. Skin, scent, spit, hair, the vague outlines of his dreams.”
A little bit of this is nice. Too much, as there is in this novel, is too much.
Vagueness -- whether in the outline of a dream or the limning of reality -- is always and forever the enemy. When Hunt depicts Tesla’s memories of a childhood bout with cholera, she has him describe it solely as an opportunity to fall in love with books and learning. This probably is historically accurate to some degree, but I’ve encountered other books that describe cholera in less romantic and more convincing terms -- as a gruesome dance between the toilet and the grave.
Hunt errs also in her persistent use of the present tense, which may at first glance appear to lend “immediacy” to a narrative, but paradoxically saps the story of its urgency. It’s hard to say why, exactly; it’s as if we, as readers, are being made to witness the inner workings of the author’s mind as she works out the scenario for what her characters will do next, rather than being plunged into a physically and dramatically immediate world, as the past tense, oddly enough, is perfectly suited for.
At other times, Hunt’s writing is evocative evidence that she is not among those of whom Tesla complains, early in the novel, that “(t)heir hearing, their sight, all their senses, have been dulled to receive information on such limited frequencies.”
There is, for example, the just-right moment when Louisa is fleeing from some federal agents chasing after Tesla’s secrets in a tunnel under the Hotel New Yorker. Her words evoke what it feels like to be frightened in an underground passageway: “The air is thick, and Louisa feels a bit weak, as if this soupy oxygen is having trouble getting into her lungs. The flow of air changes patterns in unknown currents underground. A slow breeze fills the tunnel with the metallic scent of dirt and minerals, of dread. The wind is stony.”
And her charming depiction of Louisa’s parents’ old-fashioned courtship is as beautiful as her account of Louisa’s mother’s death in childbirth, a few pages later, is horrifying.
There are many other memorable passages in this book, and one finishes it with a sense of mingled relief and awe at the author’s intelligence and ambition while wishing, in this case at least, that she possessed just a bit less of the latter.