Tesla and the Pigeon: A Historical Romance

By Samantha Hunt
Houghton Mifflin, 257 pages, $24

In her second novel—the first was the very well-received The Seas (2005)—Samantha Hunt has used her quite singular voice to animate a crowd of characters. The Seas was more or less a work of magic realism, a very grim fairy tale, with a feeling like (though none of the particulars of) the movie Edward Scissorhands. Creepy, disturbing, poetical. There was one main character, a young woman.

The Invention of Everything Else is infinitely more complicated, combining that same magic realism with historical fiction, science fiction, the history of science and architectural history, not altogether smoothly. It gives one pause, all this combined fact and fancy. Is genre fusion the hallmark of postmodern literature? At times The Invention of Everything Else reads like several books at once.

The heroine of this novel is the fictional Louisa, a nosy 24-year-old hotel chambermaid who, while living with her mournful, widowed father, works and snoops at the Hotel New Yorker. This towering edifice, itself extensively anatomized, was the last residence of the visionary electrical engineer and inventor Nikola Tesla. He’s the novel’s central figure, if not exactly its hero.

The inventor of alternating current and the radio, Tesla was of course an actual person, albeit one who has enjoyed a lively postmortem life as a character in a congeries of cultural items. These include not only books—both biographical and fictional—but also movies, comics, radio and television programs, video games and contemporary music. Born in Croatia in 1856, he really did live in the Hotel New Yorker, where he died in 1943, the year in which this novel is, for the most part, set. Brilliant but impractical, he was considered eccentric, being, among other things, a celibate vegetarian gripped by obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Other principal figures include a rather enchanting time traveler named Azor, and a tall, dark stranger he may have brought from the future for purposes of romance with Louisa. The tall, dark stranger’s name is Arthur. There are also guest appearances in fictional scenes by real people who really did cross paths with Tesla, among them Albert Einstein and Mark Twain.

And there’s a talking pigeon who’s Tesla’s love interest. He thinks of her as his wife.

Actually, The Invention of Everything Else is lousy with pigeons, in coops on roofs, and on the hotel ledge. Tesla’s sweetheart pigeon first appears in a characteristic early scene that also includes, on a speaking basis, a “real” policeman, a bust of Goethe (a talking head) and a personified (slithering) “question” that settles down next to Tesla on a park bench and is left undescribed. Thus is thought made visible, at least to the thinker. Much more concerns the invisible—namely, electricity and its powers.

The author is rapturous, vividly in love with her subjects and her characters—the reader will either share these enthusiasms, or not. She’s in love, too, with literary devices such as alliteration, rhyme, metaphor and anthropomorphism. And she’s given to annoyingly oddball descriptions, and to using words in unusual contexts, as when the young Tesla yearns to “hide away … in the fronds of breakfast.” Her plot includes multiple flashbacks. Further, there are fragmentary interpolated scenes of Louisa’s interrogation by federal agents.

To find a single overarching theme for this tricky book is tempting. Time travel, with its inherent desire for transcendence and recapture is, I think, an alluring red herring. We all want death to have no dominion. But the pigeons are our surest clue. They do what humans have always yearned to do, and still cannot: fly. Early on, the young Tesla jumps from a roof. Later, Louisa and Arthur jump off a cliff. All three expect to fly, and all three crash to the ground.

Those jumps are leaps of faith. As is writing a novel and sending it off into the world. Reading is yet another leap of faith. We open the cover, and fall into another world.

Nancy Dalva, senior writer at 2wice, reviews books regularly for The Observer. She can be reached at ndalva@observer.com.

Tesla and the Pigeon: A Historical Romance