"Lightning" by Jean Echenoz [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next five weeks highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Lightning by Jean Echenoz, translated by Linda Coverdale
Publisher: The New Press
Why This Book Should Win: Tesla, duh. And Linda Coverdale. But mostly Tesla.
This was one of the first books we included in the currently-on-hiatus “Read This Next” project. As part of that, we ran a preview of the book, and interviewed Linda Coverdale, and ran a review of the book. And then, on the the Three Percent podcast on the Best Fiction of 2011, I plugged this again. As I did in last week’s podcast. In other words, I am fond of this book. (Worth noting that on last week’s podcast, Tom chose this as the book he thinks will win the award.)
Unlike similarly constructed sentences, such as “everyone likes a reenactment,” or “haven’t you always wondered what it would be like to live in Ireland in the 1800s?,” it’s FACT that everybody is interested in Tesla.
Just look at that shit! That is totally wicked insane. And named after TESLA. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg—this guy invented EVERYTHING.1
In addition to all the awesomeness of his experiments (dude almost destroyed most of New York when he was just fucking around) and his strange obsessions with electricity and pigeons, one of the reasons Tesla keeps resurfacing every few years (most recently in Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else) and seizing the public imagination is his captivating life story and how it can be interpreted into so many different archetypal myths.
For instance, there’s the idea of the solitary, eccentric inventor. Someone who is maybe a bit socially awkward (recluse), has some odd quirks (pigeons obsession), but can see the world in ways that no one else ever has (death ray).
Also, the thing that struck me in reading this book, and in reading about Tesla in general, is how he was one of the last pure inventors outside of the corporate world. Part of that was because he was THE WORST at business matters, some of that is because Edison was a total bastard (electrocuted an elephant), and because capitalist assholes have seemingly always taken advantage of the brain-muddled and trustworthy.
Getting to the book itself, this is part of Echenoz’s “Eccentric Genius” trilogy that includes Ravel and Running. These are very different from his earlier works, which are a bit more noirish and funny. Here’s what Linda Coverdale had to say in the aforementioned interview that we did:
Chad W. Post: Were you excited when you first started translating Echenoz? These books are pretty different from his earlier works.
Linda Coverdale: When I picked up Ravel, I thought, oh goody, here we go, we’re going to have this sort of rambunctious circus-like atmosphere, it will be rollicking and lots of fun, let’s see what happens. Well, it was Ravel. My first reaction was, what? Now I’m translating Echenoz and he’s gone into a monastery? It was delightful but it certainly was a surprise. It was as if he were playing around, doing his homework, taking his exercise in all sorts of ways. But it was always Echenoz, and he was working on his style and how he would manipulate the language. It seemed that he had taken along the two things that I had most enjoyed about his writing before: that it was very antic, he had a wonderful sense of humor, and yet, it was very elegant—even when it sprawled, he was in control. He took those two aspects and he, in a way, compressed them, and raised them to a higher level, and started tackling what one might call more serious things. Which isn’t to be nasty to previous novels at all, no, he likes change, he’d been playing with different genres before and he said he was ready for a change, so, as I understand it, he was actually trying to do something different in the way of time, because previous books had always been set in the period in which they were written, so he thought he might try his hand at something else. But he didn’t want to do a historical novel, some sort of bodice-ripping thing. He wanted to set it—and this was the particular allure of this idea—in the period between the two wars, which was very rich, and he was going to have all sorts of real characters in there, real people, Ravel among them, and Ravel ended up walking off with the book that Echenoz eventually wrote. So that’s how he got into that. He was making a change, and he was experimenting with it, the experiment fizzled, but there was a by-product that proved to be, from my point of view, solid gold. That’s how he started with the Three Lives.
Partially because it’s Tesla, partially because his style really fits the content, but of the three “Eccentric Genius” books, Lightning is the most successful and captivating. It recounts the life of Tesla (referred to as “Gregor” in the book) from birth to death in a chatty, informed narratorial voice.
To give you a taste, here’s a bit from the beginning when Gregor is born right around midnight:
We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born. We prefer to be aware of the numerical moment when it all takes off, when the business begins with air, light, perspective, the nights and the heartbreaks, the pleasures and the days. [. . .]
Well, that precise moment is something Gregor will never find out, born as he was between eleven at night and one in the morning. Midnight on the dot or a bit earlier, a bit later—no one will be able to tell him. So throughout his life he will never be sure on which day, the one before or the one after, he has the right to celebrate his birthday. [. . .]
Gregor’s birth proceeds like this in the clamorous darkness until a gigantic lightning bolt—thick, branching, a grim pillar of burnt air shaped like a tree, like its roots or the claws of a raptor—spotlights his arrival and sets the surrounding forest on fire, while thunder drowns out his first cry. Such is the bedlam that in the general panic, no one takes advantage of the frozen glare of the flash, its instant broad daylight, to check the precise time according to clocks that, cherishing long-standing differences, have disagreed among themselves for quite a while anyway.
A birth outside of time, therefore, and out of the light, because in those days the only illumination comes from candle wax and oil, since electric current is as yet unknown. Electricity—as we employ it today—has yet to impose itself on custom, and it’s about time for someone to deal with that. It’s Gregor who’ll take charge, as if sorting out another item of personal business: it will be his job to clear the matter up.
This one is a MUST READ for any and everyone. It’s short, charming, and utterly enjoyable. And, I think, a definite finalist.
1 Because this is absurd, yet makes the point, here’s a list from Wikipedia of “Electromechanical devices and principles developed by Nikola Tesla”:
Various devices that use rotating magnetic fields
The Induction motor, rotary transformers, and “high” frequency alternators
The Tesla coil, his magnifying transmitter, and other means for increasing the intensity of electrical oscillations (including condenser discharge transformations and the Tesla oscillators)
Alternating current long-distance electrical transmission system (1888) and other methods and devices for power transmission
Systems for wireless communication (prior art for the invention of radio) and radio frequency oscillators
Robotics and the electronic logic gate
Electrotherapy Tesla currents
Wireless transfer of electricity and the Tesla effect
Tesla impedance phenonomena
Tesla electro-static field
Forms of commutators and methods of regulating third brushes
Tesla turbines (e.g., bladeless turbines) for water, steam and gas and the Tesla pumps
Corona discharge ozone generator
X-rays Tubes using the Bremsstrahlung process
Devices for ionized gases and “Hot Saint Elmo’s Fire”.55
Devices for high field emission
Devices for charged particle beams
Phantom streaming devices56
Arc light systems
Methods for providing extremely low level of resistance to the passage of
electric current (predecessor to superconductivity)
Voltage multiplication circuitry
Devices for high voltage discharges
Devices for lightning protection
Dynamic theory of gravity
Concepts for electric vehicles