NOTHING comes quite as close to an actual time machine as a well-written novel about a historical figure. Step right in. Buckle up.
In “The Invention of Everything Else,” Samantha Hunt, still young at this game, with just one previous novel (“The Seas”) under her belt, puts her considerable talents to work weaving "[t]iny silver threads, a spider’s web . . . Strands of coincidence that are like a piece of lace holding the world together exactly as it is in this second here.”
Jan. 1, 1943, Room 3327 in the Hotel New Yorker, at 34th Street and 8th Avenue. Nikola Tesla, the 86-year-old inventor of the radio, is obsessed by one question: If the patents were his, if the first article on the wireless transmission of messages was his, how did Guglielmo Marconi get all the credit for inventing the radio back in 1901?
Tesla is a beautiful man -- all edges, born in a little town on the Serbo-Croatian border. Things like dust particles and the bust of Goethe in Bryant Park speak to him. "[T]he hotel where I live,” he muses, “is like the sticky tongue of a frog jutting out high above Manhattan, collecting the city particle by wandering particle.” He loves the sounds of words: “If it were possible I’d store ‘Whoops’ in the safe by my bed, along with ‘OK’ and ‘Sure thing’ and the documents that prove that I am officially an American citizen.”
He loves New York’s pigeons too, and one in particular. Not people. Long ago, he gave up on love, believing that you can’t be a creative genius and be in love at the same time. “I’ve always found thought to be far more rewarding than love,” he says. “Love destroys. Thought creates.”
Along comes Louisa, a chambermaid in the hotel. She is 24 and very good at making up stories from the bits and pieces in people’s rooms: “a polyester slip left on an unmade bed . . . a pair of leather shoes whose outer heels are nearly worn through.” She lives on 53rd Street in Hell’s Kitchen with her father, Walter, who raised her after his beloved wife, Freddie, died in childbirth. All Walter longs for is a way to see Freddie again. He remembers walking the streets of Manhattan with her, waiting to hold her hand: “He loved the moments before getting what he wanted almost more than he loved getting what he wanted. He had time. They both did. Time was larger than the universe and he and Freddie were just ants walking through it, newlyweds.” When an old friend builds a time machine, a reunion looks possible.
Louisa, frail and kind and lovely, loves two things: radio dramas and pigeons. Snooping in Tesla’s room one day, she comes across his unfinished autobiography. Here is where Hunt really shines. Tesla’s story, his goodness, his sadness over the death of his brother (which he believes he caused, at age 8), his desire to invent things that actually improve people’s lives (in contrast to the personally ambitious Thomas Edison, for whom Tesla worked when he first came to this country, in 1884) and his friendship with the Century Magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson and his wife, Katharine, is crafted with an intensity bordering on love -- an intensity that makes the heart beat faster and the blood race and the serotonin find its optimum level.
I counted more than 10 different kinds of love in “The Invention of Everything Else” -- the kind that cuts like a wire through the body, the love between friends, the love for one’s child.
If only Tesla had believed in love. Hunt reinvents him as a man who might have created a machine that could guarantee love’s immortality, not just the immortality of human beings. The opposite of the electric chair. The opposite of nuclear weapons. A machine that would end loss. Only a writer has the power to reimagine a life like that.