Nikola Tesla was an inventor and engineer known for his work with alternating current, magnetic fields, and radio. His accomplishments were extraordinary, but before reading The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt all I knew about him was that he was a scientist who discovered some amazing stuff (although I couldn’t have said what). Hunt makes Tesla a character in this, her second novel, and readers are treated to an exploration of both Tesla’s discoveries and his eccentricities.
Set in New York City in the 1943, the novel alternates between Tesla and Louise, a chambermaid at the Hotel New Yorker, where Tesla is living out the final years of his life. Louise’s great loves are radio drama, her widowed father, and snooping in hotel guests’ possessions. Despite the snooping, I liked Louise right away. She has a sort of anti-social streak that I could relate to. She doesn’t participate in the chatter of the other chambermaids as they dress in the hotel locker room; she likes her chambermaid uniform because “it is a cloak of invisibility” that “allows her to be alone with her thoughts and her cart of cleaning supplies.”
I also liked how Hunt depicted Tesla. In the latter years of his life, Tesla showed signs of mental illness. He continued to work on his inventions, most notably on a “death ray,” but he was also devoted to the pigeons of New York. One in particular became a sort of confidante that Tesla referred to as his wife. Hunt immerses the reader in Tesla’s present state, but she also takes us into his past, both through the writings that Louise finds in his hotel room and through his own mental wanderings. The juxtaposition of his former brilliance and his later state made me think of how quickly we dismiss the eccentrics in our urban landscapes. There’s so much we don’t know about the people around us.
Another part of the book’s charm was in its sense of place and time. Hunt writes wonderful descriptions of New York life in the 1940s. At times, the writing gets a bit over the top, but it’s generally not a distraction, and it’s often quite evocative. Here’s a sample:
On her way to work Louisa heads over to Fifthieth Street where she can catch the Eighth Avenue IND. Most days she walks to work. It is not too far away, twenty-odd blocks. But the wonder of the subway lines stills thrills Louisa, so on cold or nasty days like this one she allows herself the small luxury of paying one nickel to ride the train down to the hotel. As she approaches the station she can smell the subway from above ground. It smells like rocks and dirt. She walks faster, hearing a train arrive. It forces warm air up the stairwell out onto the cold sidewalk like a tongue. As she pays her fare, the train pulls out of the station. Louisa hears another rider, one who missed this car by a narrower margin than she, moan long and low, whimpering as though he were a movie-house vampire exposed to the first piercing rays of sunlight. When Louisa arrives on the platform this man is mumbling, repeating the word damntrain, damntrain, damntrain, under his breath.
I could have done without the vampire image, but the rest put me right there with Louisa.
Where Hunt really goes over the top is with her attempt to pack too many ideas into this 250-page book. Louisa and Tesla and their eventual meeting are enough for a book of this length (or even longer), but Hunt throws in threads related to time travel, a potential love interest for Louise, an ambiguous three-way relationship between Tesla and two friends, the relationship between Louise’s parents, and the experiments of Thomas Alva Edison. Some of these threads take only one chapter; others are woven throughout the narrative. All of them have potential to further the plot or deepen the character development, but most of them aren’t necessary. I would much rather for Hunt to have chosen a couple of strands and given them her full attention instead of putting in so many different elements and not providing enough time for an adequate payoff. Was it necessary, for example, to hint at mysterious origins for Louise’s love interest, Arthur? No, not really. Had Hunt spent more time building suspense related to Arthur’s origins, it might have added significantly to the plot, but the hints never go anywhere.
In the end, the lingering effect is that the book itself is a sort of “invention of everything else,” instead of one coherent creation. Like a kitchen junk drawer, the book contains many treasures, but they don’t quite make sense together.