I once heard tell of electric light bulbs buried in the ground of the Arizona desert. They were not plugged in, nor were they connected to any wires but they were glowing. I wrote it off as urban myth. Thanks to Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else I now know that tale probably relates to the experiments of the Serbian scientist Nicola Tesla, the man who invented AC current and literally electrified the world. He’s credited too with the invention of radio.
Hunt’s novel, shortlisted for the 2009 Orange prize, is set during the final days of Nicola Tesla’s life. Days in which he lived in room 3327 of the Hotel New Yorker, in isolation, broke and broken. An eccentric mad scientist, visited only by his beloved pigeons. Still experimenting, primarily on the creation of his death ray – a weapon, so terrible, it will guarantee peace. It’s 1943, after all.
In the novel, he is also visited by Louisa, a curious chambermaid, who takes to snooping through his belongings. Louisa, to be frank, isn’t that interesting but her family and acquaintances share some distinctive characteristics with the scientist. First, they are pigeon fanciers. Secondly they are as OCD in their own way as Tesla is in his. Tesla believes he had communicated with Martians (the source of his alienation from the scientific community); Louisa’s family truly believe in time travel (the source of my alienation from them).
Therein lies the source of the novel’s major weakness: is it historical fiction or science-fiction? It’s both of course. An inventor’s life makes science fiction a reality. So why does Hunt encumber her novel with an entirely fictional science-fiction strand? The fictional nowhere near as fascinating as the historical. By setting it in the final days of Tesla’s life, there is the technical problem of integrating 83 years of history. So we have Tesla mulling over his past, Louisa’s snooping through Tesla’s papers to cover the ground quickly at the beginning of the novel. At other times there are vignettes. Some of these vividly written and likely to prove unforgettable – such as Edison’s electrical experiments or the murder which led to the first execution by electric chair. Even so, reading this novel is confusing, disorienting in places. It’s a patchwork of pieces, with some obvious seaming – indeed, just like the time machine built by Louisa’s acquaintances.
Fabricated from what appears to be scrap metal, the surface of the ship is pieced together in an awkward checkerboard pattern, squares of metal in all sizes and shades, some shiny, some dull, the pieces held together with rivets.
This is a pity for it prevents the novel from capitalising on its strengths. Nonetheless it is an enjoyable and, (dare I say it, given the nature of Tesla’s inventions) an illuminating read. Good though, not great.