Archive of February 2010

Wed 3 Feb

The Invention of Everything Else

I approached this book, the last months for my library book group, with eager anticipation.  Then I attended the group before getting through more than a couple dozen pages, and listened to the book be roundly criticised.  And then I read the rest of the book.  So it is interesting to me how I now react to the book.

One of the reasons I was eager to read the book was simply what I think is a great title.  I am fairly convinced the title alone is a large part of the reason for th ebooks apparent success.  The other reason is that one of the main subjects in this fictional account is the figure of Nicola Tesla.  Throughtout my youth my father and a friend were often fiddling with a Tesla coil in the basement and placing razor blades in the middle of pyramids to sharpen them, and other such weirdly trendy things in the zeitgeist of the times.  So I was eager to find out more.

The book is written with some engaging language, in places the descriptive prose is positively poetic.  The research seems to be fairly sound, and I have to admit I was quite well engaged with the New York of the times the novel is concerned with, primarily around the thirties and forties one imagines.  However the main "meat" at the centre of the novel promises much but fails to deliver anything one can truly get ones teeth into.  Someone at the reading group said I may as well ready the first thirty pages and the last thirty, I would not be missing much.  I could not take this advice, but looking back over the book I can see just what he meant!

The other problem is that one is unsure how accurate the impression one gains of Nicola Tesla is.  Granted, Ms Hunt is creating a fictional character, but there are so very many direct quotes and facts which she has drawn on and placed within the work that I think it is flawed if it does not try to faithfully recreate at least the author's impression of the character.  And do so without adding a mish mash of fiction to muddy the waters.  Now the only test of this is to research oneself - and I have not yet done so, but if I have time intend to, look into the life of Mr Tesla.  In this case there is plentiful material to draw on.  Someone from the book group had looked into his own autobiographical volumes and I imagine they could be fascinating.  There was one aspect I seriously enjoyed and which the reading group surprisingly overlooked; this was the description of a newly opened and extensive public library in New York.  If I ever get to visit New York I should like to trackthis building down and visit it (assuming it is based in fact and still exists).  I enjoyed the use of this setting thorougly and thought it was quite cleverly deployed, far more so than the New Yorker Hotel which I became bored by.  Also after looking the hotel up in Wikipedia I do believe I actually stayed there when visiting New York in the ninetties and I am sorry to say it had none of the features on display that are so well portrayed in the novel. Perhaps it says something that I found the locations more engaging than most of the characters!

Having said all this there is something the book tries to do which I think is what it was intended to be about.  I am not sure I would get it from the first and last thirty pages.  I believe the intense relationship between a father and a daughter is sketched in a little after the opening of the novel.  Then in concluding the prose seems to shift up a gear as the daughter deals with the death of her father and her future after the loss.  I do believe this is what Samantha Hunt might have taken as the central theme, but then again it could have been a love triangle which seems to be sketched in (and how much truth in that?), it could have been a romance (one is always tantalisingly offered but not really portrayed in the novel), it had many possibilities but ultimately tried to approach all of them and therein lies the failure in my opinion.

Still, great title it must be said! I wonder if the title helped garner the Orange prize nomination and other awards?  Somehow I suspect contacts and networking are everything there and the title largely incidental...  By the way I like the openning page of her website linked above - worth a click, though I suspect completely opaque from an accessibility viewpoint.