In just two novels, Samantha Hunt has already proven herself a master of beautiful delusions. Her characters are invariably dreamers, inventors, and casters of great, strange spells, imaginative people who demand imaginative books. In her surreal 2004 debut, The Seas, a lovelorn teenage girl believes she’s a mermaid destined to save a Gulf War veteran. This second, more realistic turn also features a lonely girl, as well as the creative juggernauts of New York City and Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla. The result is a smart, colorful novel about aspiration and wish fulfillment in a world even the best engineers can’t control.
Set in 1943, The Invention of Everything Else imagines an unlikely friendship between eighty-six-year-old Tesla and twenty-four-year-old Louisa, a chambermaid who cleans and snoops through his room in the Hotel New Yorker. The father of the radio, X-ray, AC motor, and a host of other real and impossible innovations, Tesla was arguably the greatest—and most eccentric—inventor of the past century. A confirmed celibate, he lived his life in hotel rooms, feuded famously with Thomas Edison, kept pigeons, and died penniless. He was even rumored to have been an alien. (Who else but David Bowie could have played him in The Prestige?) Here, Hunt captures every facet of his freakiness without sacrificing the humanity within.
The fictional Louisa, a radio fan and fellow pigeon-keeper, is something of a kindred spirit. Her mother died in childbirth and her father, Walter, still expects his wife to return. Meanwhile, Walter’s best friend, Azor, claims the ability to travel through time. Surrounded by such madcap men, Louisa is skeptical but also sensitive to human mystery. “Azor is half crazy,” she thinks, “but a part of her, a tiny room inside, wonders whether there might be a way to recognize someone you will love before you love him. Maybe time does unfurl in curves rather than straight lines.” Even if she can’t quite believe Azor, her wonder in Tesla is deep, encouraging ours. She is our Nick Carraway, marveling at the great man, wanting to enter his world. In alternating chapters, her story entwines with Tesla’s, and as their relationship unfolds in the present, she begins to hope his genius will somehow salve the pains of her past.
Like Michael Chabon and Lily Tuck, Hunt loves a good research project, and The Invention of Everything Else certainly illuminates the exuberance of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. “New York was a volcano erupting before us,” Tesla says of his arrival in 1884. “Everywhere things were changing, working, scheming, oiling, negotiating, screaming, and I felt like yelling, ‘All right, New York. I am here. Let us begin!’ but I feared the displeasure of my fellow travelers.” Hunt’s prose is spirited, witty, and—dare I say it—inventive, but it’s also pricked with doubt and the bare, cold fact of loss. Again and again, this novel reminds us that even our best creative energies fail more often than they succeed.
Limits and failures dog Tesla throughout his life—in society, in his profession, and even in the laboratory of his mind. Louisa, too, runs into limits that even science can’t overcome. Indeed, the pain of loss anchors both of Hunt’s novels, while her play with language and possibility suggests imaginative ways to cope. Mermaids and time machines are both wonderful illusions, but they are illusions all the same. That we can never make them real is the hard truth behind the beautiful dream, the limit keeping the hopeful inventor in check.