A down-on-his-luck visionary has conversations with the love of his life, a pigeon. An autodidact builds a time machine and makes a date to fly it with his best friend, a night watchman at the New York Public Library. An army mechanic comes home from the war against Hitler—or perhaps from the future—to court a chambermaid, who steals the visionary’s notes for a death ray. Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Mark Twain, and the old Pennsylvania Station put in appearances. Not quite science fiction, not quite historical fiction, not quite fantasy, Samantha Hunt’s new novel falls within an increasingly popular genre whose roots dig down through Michael Chabon and E. L. Doctorow all the way, arguably, to Hawthorne: haute nostalgic goofball Americana.
The Invention of Everything Else is a particularly sweet example. Nikola Tesla, the embittered inventor who narrates parts of the story, is a peach. So is Louisa, the novel’s other protagonist, who works in the Hotel New Yorker, where Tesla is living out his last years. So is her father, Walter, the night watchman; Arthur, her mechanic beau; and really almost everyone else in the book. Despite the World War II setting, Hunt is less interested in investigating the human capacity for evil than in exploring the limits the universe puts on dreamers—in particular, through mortality. Each of Hunt’s peaches talks like a poet, thinks big, and has a fuzzy notion of where wishes stop and the world begins. But for all its lovely language and engaging antics, the book suffers from this uniformity of tone. Tesla, an elderly Slav, talks just like young Louisa; a trip in the time machine might transform Arthur into either inventor, or even into Walter.
The best of Hunt’s many beautiful passages are the ones about love. Here’s Walter’s wooing of Louisa’s mother: “She was, at the time, courting eight suitors, one for each day of the week plus a matinee date on Saturdays, and told Walter frankly, ‘I love men.’ But very quickly, something fast and furious grew between them, something like a body wriggling desperately inside a burlap bag. She canceled her other dates. She needed his kindness and he needed everything about her.” And Louisa falling in love: “Then Arthur stares right at her and Louisa stares right back, her mouth open a bit because it is this staring that seems to make him so very different from any other men Louisa has ever known, even Walter. Arthur, unlike the others, actually seems to be trying to see her. She draws back, suspicious as if she’d found a dollar bill in the street. At first one always thinks something good is a trick.” She’s right. The Invention of Everything Else is something good, even if it sometimes feels a little too much like a trick.