Tesla Lives! A Book Review

Tesla Lives! A Book Review

My electric reading tastes led me to pick up Samantha Hunt’s new novel, The Invention of Everything Else, an attempt of sorts to revive our appreciation for Nikola Tesla.  He indeed was a path-breaking electrical genius who has long since been forgotten by the general public and very much deserves being enshrined for the ages, but unfortunately this is not the book to do it.

Yes, Hunt gives us snippets from the life of Tesla as a lonely, round-the-clock, eccentric, visionary scatter-brain (“If I am to be an inventor I must never fall in love.”) who was way ahead of his time, yet almost classicly unable to take care of himself on a day-to-day basis.  Isn’t it too bad that he’s not still around to pursue his genius in some cosseted research park setting?

But strangely the real story line here focuses on his final Manhattan dying days living in the Hotel New Yorker and cultivating friendships with pigeons — and he’s not even the main character.  Instead the protagonist is a nosy, young cleaning woman who starts perusing his files and having Tesla-esque adventures.  Some friends and family may or may not be time travelers.  Some may or may not be living in delusionary dream worlds similar to Nikola’s.  Some may or may not be government officials spying on the aging genius.  And from time to time the electricity goes out because of an experiment.

There are some entertaining moments (“Papa, perhaps if I had something to live for I would get better.””Yes , dear, yes, anything.””Engineering school.””Of course, of course, yes. Anything.”) as the narrative jumps around amidst various internal monologues and scenes.  Hunt’s liberal use of electrical terminology in her descriptions is itself a wildly alternating current of balls and strikes.  The historically nostalgic (like me) will enjoy scenes like those describing dinner with John Muir at Delmonico’s and the New York Public Library’s opening day.  Perhaps a few out there might also treasure the instances depicting “The Wizard of Menlo Park” as a jerk.

Too bad the whole jumble never really comes together.  And maybe the true problem is that everything is ultimately referring to a central tale that is never adequately told.  Namely, if you want a readable account of the battle over whether Edison’s direct current or the ultimately triumphant alternating current espoused by Westinghouse and Tesla would prevail, try Jill Jonnes’ Empires of Light.  If you want “Tesla and His Neurotic Friends” by Woody Allen, Hunt’s mercifully brief tome is the one for you.

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