Here is a novel about possibility. It might make a great movie. But why take the risk? Great novels seldom translate onto the screen. The trouble is: you lose the words. That’s why All the Pretty Horses didn’t work. That’s why A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius will never be made. Without prose, most great novels are just paper. To make novels work as movies you need images, not imagery (it’s why directors’ yell “action!” instead of “talk!”). But The Invention of Everything Else has images: it has New York City in the 1890s and New York City in 1943; it has a time machine… fireworks… man-eating trees. It’s movie-ready.
Freely mixing fact with fantasy (already it sounds like a movie) The Invention of Everything Else tells the story of Nikola Tesla, the man who discovered electricity. It also tells the story of Tesla’s chambermaid at the New Yorker Hotel, where Tesla lived for his last ten years and died in penury. Tesla and his chambermaid are both defined by their losses (Tesla’s brother died young; the chambermaid’s mother didn’t survive childbirth), and both are dreamers, blessed and cursed with imagination. Tesla, at the end of his life, has a desperate need to be taken seriously. The chambermaid befriends Tesla because she is not afraid to be needed.
Let me give you an example of why this book should be a movie; from when the chambermaid first meets Tesla, after he has caused a blackout at the New Yorker Hotel: “The door opens… From inside the room just down the hallway, power, electricity, whirling motion, and glowing light as bright as the sun spill out into the dark… And there in the aura of this wonder is a man… He is lovely. Louisa catches her breath… He is stunning, like Dracula grown old, like cold black branches covered with snow in the winter.” He is lovely. That’s the movie. If she met him in a blackout he’d caused and she were afraid, I’d let it go. But she is entranced by him. This is Captain Hook and Wendy. What’s best about the book is its way with romance. The Invention of Everything Else has about a dozen love stories, and only two of them are conventional. Hell, even the conventional ones are cockeyed. Witness Louisa (the chambermaid) smitten by an airplane mechanic: “She sees dark hairs inside his nose and it thrills her. He is an adult, complicated by all the adult things, hairs, scars, breath, glasses.”
Louisa’s father’s best friend has built a time machine. One of the wonderful things about The Invention of Everything Else is that the reader can’t tell if this time machine will work or not. The novel creates the possibility that time travel might be possible, but is equally vested in reality, where such ideas flounder. Tesla, speaking to Louisa after something terrible has happened, sums up the novel’s wisdom: “People can make beautiful mistakes, dear, and each one is an arrow, a brilliant arrow, pointing out the right way to there.” There, is Tesla’s mind, is the world of invention, of possibility. Here is where we live; there is where we wish to be. “If [Tesla] could make there into here, the difference of a tiny T, [he] could go back to the beginning. Drop the stone, undo what has been done.” …and save his brother. Louisa’s father wants to save his wife. If only, if only, if only.
There are no man-eating trees in the book. They only exist in a radio drama. The Invention of Everything Else is not about the fantasy elements it invents, but why we need invention. Because life is cruel, and unfair, and (as Louisa puts it) because “people die so easily”. We need invention to keep the possibilities alive. That’s what the book is about, why it venerates Tesla, because he was a man of ideas. In the end, it’s his ideas that save Louisa, not his devices. The book is about what’s “hard to hold on to”. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard to film. But with the right cast and a careful director, this movie could stop time, it could wow people.