There is a certain inevitability about most fiction. We readers may give ourselves over to the power or charms of a narrative, relishing small surprises along the way, but upon reflection at book's end, we have to admit there was only one direction the story was ever meant to go. Not so with The Invention of Everything Else, Samantha Hunt's marvelously inspired second novel. Such is Hunt's wizardry that at the close of the book it is not entirely clear what has just transpired—what is real and what is imagined?
This delicious sense of unreality is appropriate for a novel about Nikola Tesla, the eccentric genius scientist who has been overshadowed in our cultural history by Edison, Marconi, Westinghouse and others who profited from his visionary creations. A Serb from the small Croatian village of Smiljan, Tesla built a turbine powered by June bugs when he was eight, and later "invented" radio, alternating current and the Tesla coil, and harnessed electric power from Niagara Falls. But for all his otherworldly farsightedness, Tesla was a lousy businessman, careless with his patents and inclined to believe that no one could claim ownership of the electricity or sound waves found in the ether.
A lifelong bachelor, he lived most of his adult life in Manhattan hotel rooms. At the end, he occupied two rooms on the 33rd floor of the Hotel New Yorker, running up an unpaid bill and tending to (and having conversations with) wounded pigeons on his window ledge. This is the launch point for Hunt's novel, which takes place during the final week of Tesla's life—January 1 through 7, 1943. Working at the hotel is Louisa Dewell, a young maid given to snooping in guests' rooms. Tesla's suite proves a veritable cabinet of wonders for the curious girl, whose own home life with a quixotic clutter bug of a father is a match for the eccentric Serb's. Walter Dewell, a night watchman at the New York Public Library, still mourns his late wife, Freddie, who died at Louisa's birth. Though father and daughter are inseparable companions, there is a pervasive loneliness that each carries, a loneliness echoing Tesla's own.
If The Invention of Everything Else were merely an exploration of these relationships overlaid on Tesla's largely forgotten story, it would be fascinating enough, but Hunt has a lot more up her sleeve. Unusually for a literary novel, she plays fast and loose with the space-time continuum, stretching plausibility with the introduction of a time machine that has the potential perhaps to take Walter back to Freddie, or Tesla into the future, whence some have speculated he came in the first place. A young mechanic named Arthur, who remembers Louisa from the fourth grade, though she has no recollection of him, also may have returned from the future. Nothing is certain, yet everything seems possible.
Hunt walks a tightrope in this brave amalgam of the historical and the speculative, constantly at risk of plummeting to the unyielding ground. But not unlike Tesla, for whom limitations of the imagination did not exist, this talented writer is not afraid to push the envelope. The book is not just about invention, it is invention, and as with all innovations, it inspires both awe and envy. Combining originality with an old-fashioned sense of story is no mean feat, yet Hunt seems to achieve this blend effortlessly. The Invention of Everything Else is about many things: love, family, the fluidity of time, the ethics of discovery and, of course, pigeons. As if that weren't enough, it is also a beautifully portrayed paean to a time and a place—mid-century New York City. From the art deco splendor of the Hotel New Yorker to the mural-coffered reading room of the Public Library to the late lamented magnificence of the mercilessly-razed Pennsylvania Station, Hunt recreates a bygone city where the airwaves crackle with radio serials about Martian invasions and high adventure. With all due respect to Marconi, we have Tesla to thank for those airwaves. And we have Samantha Hunt to thank for resurrecting this remarkable story of a man out of time and making it more remarkable still with her own offbeat sensibility.
Robert Weibezahl, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is the author of The Wicked and the Dead, a crime novel set in Hollywood.