The Invention of Everything Else

By Samantha Hunt

Houghton Mifflin, 257 pages, $24

I took a journey with "The Invention of Everything Else," a new novel based on the life of inventor Nikola Tesla, by Samantha Hunt. There were the first glorious seven pages of prose: daring and delicious, perfectly calibrated, fresh but not raw, original but neither off-putting nor disconcertingly strange. "Lightning first," the book begins, "then the thunder. And in between the two I'm reminded of a secret." Oh, I thought, I smiled, I'm in the hands of talent.

A shift then, midway through Page 7, to something a bit gushing and idiosyncratic -- precariously forced, it seemed to me, overly precious:

"I forget all thoughts of humans. I even forget about what I was searching for in the wall of drawers until, staring out at the sky, I don't forget anymore."

A greater strangeness then crept in and held, as talking pigeons entered the tale, and time-machine rides, scenes that registered as slapstick to me, descriptions that I'd pause over and parse: "The city began to scream as the rope pulley carrying a square cord of lumber to be used in dock construction gave way and fell to the cobbled street with a terrific crash." Had the city opened its mouth and bellowed? I wondered, I tried to picture it. Is "scream" the right word for this brand of crash and commotion? Or: "Louisa can't make out the words, only that there are words being said in a slow stream that rises and falls like a minister bringing a noisy congregation to order." A stream that rises like a minister, I'd read, and read again. And also: "As he turns to see what hit him, his face has streams of volcanic lava rising through the veins of his neck." Frankly, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make this physiology work; I just couldn't see it.

But there were high points, too, places where the language would stop me for all the right reasons -- a beautiful thought, beautifully put: "Azor is half crazy, but a part of her, a tiny room inside, wonders whether there might be a way to recognize someone you will love before you love him." And: "Even better than knowing is not knowing, is wanting to know everything and having to find out very, very slowly, like pulling a fishing line to the surface before you know what's on the hook." These sentences entranced me, I admired them, they made me eager to read on.

I should get to the plot. I should explain that "The Invention of Everything Else" is a history-infused invention, the story of Tesla's final days in the Hotel New Yorker, where the 86-year-old creator of alternating-current electricity and wireless communication has stowed his papers and his tools, is beset by memories and has befriended pigeons. Tesla has lived a long, eccentric life -- bolstered and beset by a kind of brilliance that has put him on the frightening forefront of discovery and often, sadly, left him stranded, so that Guglielmo Marconi would ultimately take the glory and financial rewards for Tesla's work on the wireless transmission of messages and the wireless transmission of energy, so that Thomas Edison would work to circumvent him, and so that the Nobel Prize committee would, at the very last moment, reverse its plan to give Tesla science's high prize. In his final days, Tesla is a lonesome pauper with a heap of unpaid bills, and into his life, in Hunt's creation, comes a curious chambermaid named Louisa who has a habit of digging through the things of hotel patrons and finds herself a treasure trove when she enters Tesla's room.

Much of the novel concerns itself with Louisa, whose mother died during childbirth, whose father, Walter, is a night watchman at the library, and whose love life has recently been amplified by meeting an oddball named Arthur, who possesses a strange prescience, an other-worldly quality. Meanwhile, Walter's dear friend, Azor, is at work on a time machine that may transport Walter back to see his beloved wife once more. Like Tesla, Louisa has had a lifelong passion for pigeons, and this, among other things, forges a bridge between the two, as Louisa snoops her way into Tesla's past, and as Tesla retraces his own breakthroughs, heartbreaks, dreams.

Hunt uses multiple strategies and voices to convey Tesla's life story. At some points, Hunt has Tesla imagining himself in conversation with Samuel Clemens, a device that felt awkward and unnecessary to this reader. At others, Hunt has Louisa reading from old Tesla manuscripts. On other pages, Hunt has embedded scraps of interrogative conversation -- authorities squeezing Louisa for whatever she might know about Tesla, who, some think, could be dangerous, especially given the year, 1943, and the state of the world. On still other pages, Hunt takes us into the laboratories of Edison, whom she renders as a cruel sort whom animal lovers will especially despise.

The facts of Tesla's life are fascinating, and while there's a certain unwieldiness to the plot, and places where the language strains too hard, it's hard not to conclude that Hunt had her heart in the right place with this book, that her highest concerns are with wonder and love, with questions of survival. By the time I reached the last few pages, I was feeling admiration again -- caring about characters I often felt I'd lost midway through the book. Indeed, the book's most touching passage comes just pages from the end, when Louisa is remembering the nights she'd sometimes spend at the library with her father. This, I think, is Hunt at her very best:

"He would lead me into the stacks, seven stories of them, and my head would swoon. How could there be so much, so many lives, so many books that were, each one, filled with stories, filled with letters, as if the library were some sort of tremendous brain. Memories, histories. No wonder he loved it there. Each book was a doorway to the past, to the dead. And there was my father, watchman over all of that. He'd take my hand in his."

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Beth Kephart's books include "Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River." She can be reached at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.