The Invention Of Everything Else

Review by Andrew Crumey

Published in Scotland on Sunday

The Invention Of Everything Else
Samantha Hunt
Harvill Secker, £12.99

Nikola Tesla helped bring electricity to America and radio to the world. In the early twentieth-century, the Serbian-born inventor was as famous as Edison and Marconi. But while his rivals reaped the glory, Tesla became a recluse, finally shutting himself in a New York hotel room where he allegedly worked on death-rays, mind-reading devices and time travel until his death in 1943 aged 86. Now this eccentric genius is the unlikely hero of Samantha Hunt’s novel – and like Tesla himself, the book is both colourfully inventive and fundamentally flawed.

The story begins in Tesla’s first-person voice as the ageing scientist goes to feed pigeons in the park, these being his only remaining companions. Hunt strikes a distinctly poetic tone, and her engagement with language is one of the book’s most attractive features. It is also, however, its biggest problem. Addressing a pigeon as though it were his lover, Tesla sees, “an eye that remembers me before all this gray hair set in, back when I was a beauty too.” Certainly men can think themselves beautiful, but there is something distinctly feminine about the language as a whole. More worryingly, Tesla’s voice shows little evidence of his supposed scientific background. “Something in knowing is not quite as wonderful as not knowing,” he says – an observation that from a poet would be commonplace, but which from a scientist sounds like heresy. Even worse is when he tries to explain what it is that he actually invented, an “engine for the generating of alternating-current power” containing “a magnet, an iron rod where the charge has been separated, negative at one end, positive at the other.” Anyone whose knowledge of physics goes beyond changing a plug will know this is hokum. The first-person narrator of this book does not sound like an octogenarian male scientist whose first language was not English, but like a thirty-something female American author who teaches creative writing.

Does it matter? For many readers, it probably will not. But for those who read with the mind’s ear as much as the mind’s eye, the false voice is bound to be irritating. For a while I tried hearing it in third-person rather than first, and this worked well enough. But why not write it that way to begin with? And while most readers won’t want a detailed account of electrical engineering, surely they can at least expect some basic accuracy. The impression given here is that Tesla invented AC electricity, the kind we all have in our homes. But Tesla did not invent it, he devised new ways of producing and delivering it. Nobody would accept a novel where Shakespeare writes the Canterbury Tales - why should novels about scientists be any different?

Tesla, however, is only one half of this book, and what saves it is its other half, a young hotel chambermaid called Louisa, who tidies Tesla’s room and befriends him. If only the entire novel had been written from her viewpoint, it could have been a winner. In fact, as her story develops, Tesla appears increasingly irrelevant, since another mad inventor appears on the scene, claiming to have made a time machine. Louisa also bumps into a forgotten schoolmate who becomes the book’s love interest, and just might be a visitor from the future.

Curiously, it is Louisa who has the more scientific view of her surroundings. A snowflake hits her eye and “she can see its crystal structure… a blue refraction”, while for Tesla, snow feels like “a shattering of wet glass on my cheeks”. Both are effective observations, but Hunt’s characters seem to have had their brains accidentally swapped in the writing laboratory.

Matters become still more confusing when Tesla’s first-person account turns out to be his journal, read by Louisa – but then Tesla disturbs her, still narrating in first person. For much of this book, I wondered if Hunt was playing some enormously clever postmodernist game, but in the end decided she was not. Her attempt at literary ventriloquism simply does not work; what does succeed is Louisa’s story, a charming period romance with an appropriate air of innocence and wonder, well stocked with carefully researched details that create an authentic sense of time and place.

Even so, don’t expect any kind of resolution at the end: Louisa’s beau ultimately seems as peripheral as Tesla himself, and the novel never solves its quest for a male figure worthy of her heart. The problem, perhaps, is that the real-life story of Nikola Tesla was so remarkable that there seems little point turning it into a novel – though other writers have tried. Sometimes knowing is better than not knowing, and fact beats fiction.