Novelist Samantha Hunt Imagines the Final Days of Inventor Nikola Tesla

He fell in love with a bird

Invention is at the heart of all storytelling, and Samantha Hunt's new novel, The Invention of Everything Else, takes it seriously as both a subject and an approach to writing.

Set in New York City in 1943, the book focuses on Nikola Tesla, the underappreciated Serbian inventor whose innovations include AC electrical power and the radio. The real Tesla had a lab on Houston Street and lived out his final years in a ramshackle room at the New Yorker Hotel. Tesla nobly believed that an idea was not the sole property of any one person, which he struggled to reconcile with the fact that other scientists had taken credit for his original work. Picking up these and other historically accurate threads, Hunt's story unfolds over the last week of Tesla's life: He is 86 years old, destitute, and maybe a little crazy. He is also, of course, a genius.

Tesla is an ideal person to bring back to life through fiction; technically, he's famous, but he's also largely unfamiliar. Because his actual story is so incredible (he was pals with Mark Twain, he fell in love with a bird, he tried to invent a "death ray"), it's tricky to separate the pieces of Hunt's account that are drawn from fact from those that she's invented. Tesla is well balanced by the entirely fictional character of Louisa, a sensible, inquisitive young chambermaid who works at the hotel and befriends the inventor after he catches her snooping through his things. A classic sort of heroine, she treats the fading man like an oracle as she juggles her own daily dramas.

Weird science: Hunt in her Carroll Gardens apartment
photo: Tina Zimmer
Weird science: Hunt in her Carroll Gardens apartment

Even after being caught, Louisa continues to sneak into Tesla's room to pore over an autobiographical account of his early days. Excerpts from it are interwoven with their often awkward face-to-face encounters. Early on, Louisa meets a deliciously strange man named Arthur who claims to have known her as a child, though she has no recollection of him. Meanwhile, Louisa's father, Walter—long heartbroken over the death of her mother—reunites with an old friend who has built a time machine. Hunt's multiple narrative strands get tangled easily, particularly since they're told from different points of view and are full of flashbacks. But since the book is so preoccupied with the mysteries of time and memory, this inadvertent confusion works on at least one level.

Drawing from historical accounts, Hunt has endowed Tesla with an unusual sensitivity to light and sound. As the book opens, he is indexing the dust in his hotel room: "Here is the tiniest bit of a woman from Bath Beach who had her hair styled two days ago, loosening a few small flakes of scalp in the process. . . . Here is some buckwheat flour blown in from a Portuguese bakery on Minetta Lane and a pellicle of curled felt belonging to the haberdashery around the corner." The man has a rather tenuous grip on reality, a trait perhaps essential to someone whose work requires great feats of imagination. He feels estranged from other people, whose senses "have been dulled to receive information on such limited frequencies," and would rather commune with the city's many pigeons.

Hunt's first novel, The Seas, about a girl who believes she's a mermaid, was a smaller and more sensual story. Interestingly, its protagonist also does time as a chambermaid. The new book's larger scale makes it harder to get close to the characters (I was reminded of Wickett's Remedy, Myla Goldberg's similarly ambitious sophomore effort about the 1918 influenza epidemic). But in both of her books, Hunt's fascination with language is unmistakable, resulting in beautiful, intimate observations. As a child, Louisa once asked her father to tell her the meaning of scintillating; when Walter isn't sure of the answer, they decide to use the word to "describe those moments when the right word just can't be found." Walter's friend has a similarly wonderful explanation for how he named the parts of his time machine: "I just gave them fancy names because I happen to like fancy names."

Some of the characters are not as fully fleshed out as they might be. Tesla is both inspired and tormented by his close friendship with the poet Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife Katharine, but they themselves are not especially memorable. Louisa's mother, who died in childbirth, is similarly hazy. Recalled only in flashback, her idealized loveliness feels predictable. Then again, one could choose to read this glowing portrayal as an expression of what it feels like to miss someone desperately.

The book's epigraph is a quote from a U.S. Patent Office commissioner who claimed in 1899: "Everything that can be invented has been invented." Though Hunt offers her elegant, inspired (if imperfect) novel as a corrective to this idea, she also seems to lament that people these days are less driven to wildly inventive acts. It may be true that there's less romance to the way we make things now. But the fact that we take discovery for granted doesn't mean its hold on us is any less intense.

 
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