Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The invention of Nikola Tesla

Years after its publication, I finally got around to reading The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt, and now I'd like to take a time machine back to 2009 and tell myself, jeez, what are you waiting for, read this book! Because this is a beautiful novel. Wondrous good. Poignant and powerful and purely original. This is a novel about love and grief, loneliness and longing, and even, no kidding, bonus points here, about capitalism and how it wrecks everything, blocks human possibility. Above all, it seems to me, this is a stunningly wrought consideration of creativity.

Skimming reader reviews on Amazon left me shaking my head at what seems to me to be a sad misread of Hunt's novel and thinking, as a novelist myself, about how you just never know what book a reader is going to fashion in her/his own mind and how it might be not at all the novel you thought you wrote. OK, I say this with the perhaps unsupportable belief that I, unlike those many Amazon readers, understand Hunt's intent. Who knows, but it seems to me that what she's up to with this novel is something much more delicate and profound than what many of those readers seem to have gleaned. What they, many anyway, assert is that Invention is a work of magical realism. Surreal, some label it. And other variations on this theme.

But, unless I've lost my readerly mind, The Invention of Everything Else is neither a surreal nor a magical-realist fiction. Rather, it is a deep dive into the creative consciousness. It is a study of the imagination--imagination as a powerful creative force that drives both the main and several of the minor characters and that leaves them ultimately adrift in a society that squelches imagination at every turn or, as in Tesla's case, appropriates it for corporate profit.

I loved how, especially in the early sections of the book, we experience Tesla's creative consciousness in all its expansiveness. There's a sense of wonder here that we are more used to associating with artists rather than scientists; Hunt had me reeling and gasping at the playful leaps of imagination she conjures in Tesla's mind. It's a daring and, it seems to me, mostly successful effort, which made me regard Tesla as a sort of artist himself, a being of the ether rather than a mere materialist.

But while we see him here as a person of soaring ideas, possessor of a mind that broke free of earthly bounds, he was of course, as every true scientist must be, a materialist through and through, and Hunt depicts this beautifully too. There are many places where she has him spin grand and ever grander ideas for inventions, and he is at pains to point out how every one, no matter how grandiose or implausible, is rooted in reality, in atoms and molecules, energy, electricity. I love this. Because science--a materialist perspective on the world--is or ought to be a soaring, limitless endeavor. A great scientist, a truly great one with an unbound mind, is a kind of artist, and must be a dreamer. As Hunt shows here so well.

At a few points in the book, Hunt's Tesla makes a nice little jab against religion, with a nifty little point that resonates. He takes to task those who would reduce all the myriad wonders of the natural world to a single simple magical all-powerful being in control of everything. How unimaginative, Tesla remarks. And how unexciting, when the universe offers up its endlessly complex mysteries for human examination, the thrilling project of a lifetime, his lifetime, endless lifetimes if they were available. So much to learn. So much to investigate. So much to think up. To create. So much room for improvement. Ever expanding vistas.

This is the Tesla Hunt offers up, hero perhaps, martyr, victim, human being with an unbound mind and a broken heart from almost the start. I'm so taken with him, with her version of him, that while I'm interested enough in learning more to think about reading a biography now, on the other hand I'm touched enough by this book, content enough, at the end, to live with this Tesla, fictional though he is, as the definitive version. There's literary magic here, and I think it's where I'll let him dwell.

I haven't mentioned the other main character, Louisa, whose life intersects Tesla's in his last days, but with her too Hunt has crafted a fine character. I found her a lovely creation, and her story an effective counterpoint to Tesla's highlighting the same themes of imagination, love, loss, grief, hope. The ache of life. All in all, as affecting and satisfying a novel as I've read in quite a while.