"The Invention of Everything Else"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte APR 15, 2008)
It is easy to stereotype the most brilliant scientists as mad, crazy, not quite all there. And Nikola Tesla, the Serbian immigrant who invented alternating current and made some of the biggest inventions in electricity, certainly seemed to many, to fit the bill. “There are all kinds of stories. He is crazy. He is a genius. He is from outer space,” writes Samantha Hunt in her novel The Invention of Everything Else, “He is from Serbia. He manages to survive on vegetables only. He drinks blood. He makes everyone stand at least three feet away from him at all times. He does not speak English. He is kind. He is horrid. He is just lonely and confused. He lets wild pigeons live in his room.”
Tesla, it is now widely known, was cheated out of many of his inventions by others patenting his work. He gave up much of the royalties owed him by Westinghouse and his feud with Thomas Edison was strong enough to have probably denied them both sharing the Nobel spotlight early in the twentieth century. Nikola Tesla occupies prime real estate in Samantha Hunt's imaginative new novel, The Invention of Everything Else. Through powerful writing, she paints the scientist not as a caricature but as a complex human being who lived away the last few years of his life in a guest room in the Hotel New Yorker.
As the book opens, Tesla is talking to his favorite pigeons in the hotel room and it is the eve of a new year—1943. In real life, Tesla died on January 7 of that year so in the book, he is in the twilight of his life. One day, a young chambermaid Louisa Dewell, happens to catch a glimpse of Tesla right after he inadvertently brings down the hotel's electric system with one of his experiments. Louisa is intrigued. The old man is not very different from her own father—a widower named Walter, who has never made peace with the death of his wife during childbirth—and who is a night watchman at the New York Public Library. Louisa and Tesla also share a love of pigeons—she once helps him walk to nearby Bryant Park to feed his favorite birds.
Louisa snoops around in Tesla's hotel room when she can and the records of his life are endlessly fascinating to her. Hunt who has obviously done extensive research for this novel paints a masterful portrait of the aging, neglected scientist. Destitute and friendless, Tesla looks back on his life with sadness. “The world stopped making sense. When a country goes to war, men can no longer operate free and open laboratories,” he says. “The government would like to know what you are doing. Businesses become corporations, the individual thinker became unpatriotic. My way of inventing got tossed out with the trash. It was a new century, one where I did not belong.”
Hunt mixes this real-life portrait with side plots featuring Louisa and her delusional father, Walter. Halfway into the story, Walter's old friend, Azor, resurfaces from the past in what he claims is a time machine. Walter is so desperate to just get one glimpse of his dead wife that he ends up getting tempted into a ride in the contraption. Then there's a new romance that develops between Louisa and a man named Arthur who claims he is her classmate—except Louisa remembers none of this. Still Arthur shows some measures of kindness toward her father and Louisa and Arthur slowly fall in love. It must be said that the few short romantic scenes in this novel are some of the best I have read in a while and they capture the essence of first love beautifully.
While these side plots are very clever, occasionally they get a little too caught up in their own cleverness. There are times when it is difficult to separate the stuff that is actually happening from what Louisa is merely imagining or from what is happening on an alternate time plane. Nevertheless, even if this plot might sound a little offbeat, The Invention of Everything Else never loses its bearings or pace.
“Thought can be a force field,” says Azor, Walter's friend, in the book. Although Louisa dismisses the theory as a crazy notion, the book proves that it just might be true. Thought, imagination and talent can all be equally powerful and Samantha Hunt sure has these in spades. In The Invention of Everything Else she has channeled them all to create one electrifying read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Invention of Everything Else at author's site
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Samantha Hunt
- Bostonist interview with Samantha Hunt
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Seas
- The New York Times review of The Invention of Everything Else
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About the Author:
Samantha Hunt is a writer and artist. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and McSweeney's and on This American Life. She recently received the first-ever "5 under 35" award from the National Book Foundation. Her play, The Difference Engine, a story about the life of Charles Babbage, was produced a few years ago. Hunt's artwork can be found at the New York Public Library.
Samantha Hunt has spent four years researching Nikola Tesla, in the course of which she has appeared in several Tesla-related documentaries, visited Tesla fanatics across the country, and explored the five subterranean floors of the still-standing Hotel New Yorker.
She teaches writing and bookmaking at Pratt Institute and is the fiction editor of Crowd magazine.
She lives in New York City.