Review ~ Lightning

Lightning by Jean Echenoz, Linda Coverdale (translator)

Cover via Goodreads

Drawn from the life of Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors of his time, Lightning is a captivating tale of one man’s curious fascination with the marvels of science.

Hailed by the Washington Post as “the most distinctive voice of his generation,” Echenoz traces the notable career of Gregor, a precocious young engineer from Eastern Europe, who travels across the Atlantic at the age of twenty-eight to work alongside Thomas Edison, with whom he later holds a long-lasting rivalry. After his discovery of alternating current, Gregor quickly begins to astound the world with his other brilliant inventions, including everything from radio, radar, and wireless communication to cellular technology, remote control, and the electron microscope.

Echenoz gradually reveals the eccentric inner world of a solitary man who holds a rare gift for imagining devices well before they come into existence. Gregor is a recluse—an odd and enigmatic intellect who avoids women and instead prefers spending hours a day courting pigeons in Central Park.

Winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Echenoz once again demonstrates his astonishing abilities as a prose stylist as he vividly captures the life of an isolated genius. A beautifully crafted portrait of a man who prefers the company of lightning in the Colorado desert to that of other human beings, Lightning is a dazzling new work from one of the world’s leading contemporary authors.(via Goodreads)

I purchased this volume from Our Book Store, small bookstore with an eclectic inventory in Omaha’s Old Market. I was drawn to it because it was small and  slim and promised a story of a genius, “inspired” by the life of Nikola Tesla.

While this book is about a character named Gregor, it’s obvious that the story is about Tesla. Not to judge a book by its cover, but there are many other images one might have used if one wanted to invoke Tesla without using his portrait. Echenoz has written two other fictionalized biographies Ravel, about composer Maurice Ravel, and Running, about Czech runner Emil Zátopek. In these other cases, he didn’t bother trying to distance himself or the reader from the historical characters. Is this fictionalized biography more fictionalized than the others? The story does seem to exist pretty firmly in the eccentricities and myths of Tesla.

The writing and translation are lovely. The prose is light and funny, but often bittersweet and heartbreaking. The actions of Gregor aren’t too thoroughly explored. He is a master innovator who envisions his inventions fully formed. Sometimes he is great; more often he is impenetrable, not only to those around him but even to himself. Taken as novel, it’s fairly depressing. The genius of Gregor’s inventions are not given scope in light of his inauspicious end.

I’m a little dismayed that many reviewers seem to count this novel as an educational introduction to Tesla. The characterization of Gregor is less psychologically unbalanced than The Invention of Everything Else‘s Tesla, but the details are still cheery-picked for sensation. This narrative is by no means the complete story of Nikola Tesla, beautifully written as it is.

Publisher: The New Press
Publication date: 2010
Genre: Fictional biography, literary

Last review from a book read in 2013. Huzzah!

2016olympicsreadingchallenge

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4 thoughts on “Review ~ Lightning

  1. Congrats on finishing off your 2013 reviews! 🙂 It is weird that people would describe this book as an intro to Tesla when Tesla isn’t the main character (just the inspiration for the book).

    1. Well, it’s very very thinly veiled Tesla. All the other interactions with historical people are there, but it’s “Gregor” and not Tesla. It’s just sort of an odd authorial decision.

  2. Pingback: Double Review ~ Two About Tesla | The Writerly Reader

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