[W]hat is an old man but a memory machine? – Anthony McCarten, Brilliance
Historical fiction is a problematic genre. On one level it’s great for the author because he or she has the plot already laid out for them and all they have to do is fill in the blanks (which is a gross oversimplification, I know); the reader on the other hand has the worry that as he or she knows in advance what’s going to happen they will find little to surprise them in the text. An excellent example of getting it right—okay, I know, it’s a film—is the script to Apollo 13 which had me sitting on the edge of my seat and I’d lived through it. Good historical fiction is not simple biography: Mr X went here on such and such a date and did y. It has to do more than inform; it has to engage and involve.
Anthony McCarten is not an historical novelist, at least I wouldn’t have pegged him as one. I’ve read and reviewed two of his previous novel: Spinners (which The Mirror described as `An impressive novel full of alien abductions and small town neuroses...Weird, witty and wonderful.') and Death of a Superhero, a novel about a teenage boy who, although he’s dying from leukaemia, is more interested in losing his virginity. Both are the kind of books I appreciate managing to balance dark humour with serious and meaningful content. So when I heard he had a new book coming out I was interested. It didn’t really matter to me what it was going to be about; I’d want to read it.
As it happens it was about Thomas Alva Edison, a real person, the fourth most prolific inventor in history, holding 1,093 US patents in his name. His best known inventions include a stock ticker, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, hence the title of McCarten’s novel, Brilliance. Thankfully I knew nothing about him. If you’d asked me a week before I got the book who invented the light bulb I would have stared blankly at you. I deliberately didn’t read anything about the man before I began. The only name that jumped out at me as I read was Nikola Tesla and I only knew his name because he appears as a part-human, part-vampire scientist in Sanctuary, as himself in The Inspector Murdoch Mysteries and is name-checked in Warehouse 13 as the supposed inventor of the electric handgun the agents use.
It took me a little while to get into the book, mainly because it’s not exactly written chronologically, but once the basic shape came clear I began to enjoy it better. It feels a bit like a novelisation of a screenplay which considering McCarten’s writing credits is not surprising. In some respects it reminds me of The Last Journey, a television play by James Forsyth in which we have a dying Tolstoy at Astapovo train station looking back on his life. In McCarten’s book we have a decrepit Edison (two years away from death) sitting on a bench at Walker’s Cross station in 1929 in the company of a local fifteen-year-old boy who dreams of moving to New York and becoming a millionaire. The boy realises that the crotchety old man is someone famous but he can’t place him.
When Edison began courting his second wife in 1886, at the age of thirty-nine, in answer to her query as to “what level of disrepair” he was in; he told her—honestly—thirty percent, but a lot happens to him between then and the time he skips off the train to avoid the celebration at Dearborn “where a crowd of four hundred [including] the giants of the business world” are assembling to honour him on this the “golden jubilee of his greatest invention.” He wants none of it. He had always been hard of hearing; his war cry throughout the book is “Eighty decibels!” but now that’s been hiked to one hundred. He sits there, chews tobacco, tolerates the boy’s presence but mostly spends the time he figures he’ll have until his absence is noticed and the train reverses back to collect him thinking about the ups and downs of his career and the careers of those that were intertwined with his: the aforementioned Nikola Tesla (once his assistant), George Westinghouse, one of Edison's main rivals in the early implementation of the American electricity system who favoured a arrangement which used alternating current (based on the extensive research by Tesla) over Edison's insistence on direct current and John Pierpont Morgan an American financier, banker and art collector who dominated corporate finance and industrial consolidation during his time to such an extent that he was known as the “Boss of the United States.” What Brilliance focuses on is what came to be known as the War of the Currents which might have done as a title but Brilliance is better.
During the initial years of electricity distribution, Edison's direct current was the standard for the United States, and Edison did not want to lose all his patent royalties. Direct current worked well with incandescent lamps, which were the principal load of the day, and with motors. Direct-current systems could be directly used with storage batteries, providing valuable load-levelling and backup power during interruptions of generator operation. Direct-current generators could be easily paralleled, allowing economical operation by using smaller machines during periods of light load and improving reliability. At the introduction of Edison's system, no practical AC motor was available. Edison had invented a meter to allow customers to be billed for energy proportional to consumption, but this meter worked only with direct current. As of 1882 these were all significant technical advantages of direct current. – Wikipedia
Four years earlier Edison might have been hard pushed to imagine such a bright future. We find him at the beginning of the novel in his laboratory:
On the workbench a crude light bulb burned. The weak glow produced by it was as yet not strong enough to illuminate the hilltop laboratory, but six gaslights made up for it, throwing light into the large workroom and onto the desk on which the inventor lay curled.
Alva. Thirty-two years old. A shabby Prince Albert coat. Deeply asleep after his three-day vigil watching over each new prototype of the electric lamp. And neither the phonographic recording, long since having finished playing an aria (cycling only static now), nor the several long hoots of the New York to Menlo Park could wake the exhausted genius.
He is roused by a young inventor, Whitcomb Judson, who is seeking his hero’s opinion on what he has been calling “an ‘Automatic Continuous Clothing-Closure Device’” although he admits the name is a bit long-winded. Whilst looking over the young man’s proposal they are interrupted by Sheriff Taylor from Menlo Park, there to serve Edison with papers due to unpaid loans; the premises in which he is currently working, his farmlands and every property in his name is to be auctioned off to pay his creditors. Despite being a genius, despite a number of successful inventions, despite his fame he is far from being a success. At least not financially.
Edison can’t see the point in Judson’s device although he sees immediately what it is, “a plough in reverse, it draws the divided tracks together” but pooh-poohs it just as when, some months earlier, he had dismissed Tesla’s motor and generator which ran on AC as “dangerous” at which point the two parted company. (The fact that Edison refused to pay him the $15,000 Tesla maintained he owed him can’t have helped.) Time has shown that both alternating current and zip fasteners would find a firm place in all our lives but this wasn’t the first time Edison had failed to see the bigger picture; in 1895 he invented the Kinetophone—a Kinetoscope (peep-hole motion picture viewer) with a phonograph that played inside the cabinet. Sound could be heard through two ear tubes while the viewer watched the images. This creation never really took off, and by 1915 Edison abandoned the idea of sound motion pictures. Six years later D. W. Griffith's feature Dream Street was shown in New York with a single singing sequence and crowd noises and six years after that The Jazz Singer premiered with fully synchronised sound.
I mention this not to take away from his successes but to place them in perspective. Edison needed people to develop his ideas and support him and this is where J P Morgan enters the picture. At this time—1878—he is merely the “Napoleon of Wall Street” but he was never a man content with any of his achievements. On the 21st of December he decides to pay the inventor a visit, shortly after Edison has received his other two visitors but before the inventor found himself homeless. Morgan has a proposition but before he can present it he has to endure Edison’s scrutiny of his nose. Why his nose? Let me explain:
No prominent figure in history had been lumbered with such a nose, not even Giovanni de’ Medici whose prodigious papal profile necessitated the Vatican’s first rectangular coin. But J. Pierpont Morgan … was strangely pleased with his own disfigurement, and he would not swap it now for the prettiest nose in Christendom. It was as if to say, “I am extraordinary. And so I will look extraordinary.”
As severe a case of rhinophyma as any doctor had ever seen, it had, over the last two years, mutated to twice its original size, and was now ivied with fine blue veins, a postulated, bulbous magma of warty tissue with the texture of a cauliflower. Bizarre, revolting, upsetting to strangers, he carried it nonetheless with a kind of mad bravado. Cures were available and repeatedly offered, but he stubbornly refused to pursue them.
Edison is not upset by the ginormous schnook, not in the least; actually he presumes that Morgan has heard about his “work [i]n the field of electro-therapeutic forces. A whole new field [he was] opening up single-handed.” He suggests running a current through the man’s proboscis:
“A current? Through my nose?”
“Five ampere would do it. To excite the particles, reinvigorate the tissue, reawaken cellular intelligence.”
That is not, however, why he has come; no:
He raised his voice, “YOUR INVENTIONS, SIR! I’VE COME TO TAKE A LOOK!”
“I see. And can I ask – which one? I have so many.”
It is only the one, however, that Morgan sees as a real money maker and he is direct to the point of bluntness: he proposes to illuminate America, beginning with his own home, followed by the rest of New York and ultimately the whole of America, not that he is content to leave it there; Europe is also in his sights:
At this point in time of course Edison has not lit up a single house but Morgan is not put off: “I have a vision ... you see.”
The rest, as they say, is history but I wonder how many people are completely (or even slightly) au fait with that history? I certainly wasn’t. But as I got into the book a nugget of information concerning Edison dislodged itself; I had read about him only recently! When I reviewed Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain I remember learning that Edison electrocuted an elephant called Topsy in 1904:
Topsy was fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide before the deadly current from a 6,600-volt AC source was sent coursing through her body, partly as a demonstration of how "unsafe" his competitor's (Nikola Tesla) alternating current design was. She was dead within seconds. The event was witnessed by an estimated 1,500 people and Edison's film of the event was seen by audiences throughout the United States. – Wikipedia
Oddly enough this incident doesn’t make it into McCarten’s book—no doubt she’ll be found in the two hundred pages he cut from his first draft—but the whole farcical debacle concerning the electrocution of criminals does. It might seem an odd thing for Edison to get caught up in, especially bearing in mind that he was opposed to capital punishment, but he was quite sincere in his belief that AC was potentially lethal making execution the only sensible use for it. So he ended up working on an electric chair. He didn’t conceive of the idea though. That dubious honour goes to Alfred P. Southwick, a member of a committee established in New York to determine a more humane method of execution to replace hanging. He developed the idea of running electric current through a condemned man after hearing a case of how relatively painlessly and quickly a drunk man died due to touching exposed power lines but it was employees of Edison who were tasked with the chair’s construction, testing and (if you’ll pardon the pun) execution. To prove the danger of AC electricity and its suitability for what they were calling “electricide”, Brown and Edison publicly killed many animals with AC for the press in hopes of associating alternating current with electrical death and McCarten doesn’t shy from describing two and alluding to others, just not the elephant.
Tesla was not beyond pandering to the press although his party trick using AC was less grotesque. He would stand on stage and have himself wired up and allow electricity to pour through his body and not just ten or twenty volts:
The alternating current surged into him.
Then the 20,000 mark… and the 50,000… the 100,000, and then – fighting to remain calm, his limbs beginning to shudder, the sinews on his neck to stand out – the 150,000 mark! He was a madman. In his determination to legitimise his radical ideas, trying to show no ill effects, it was increasingly clear to the audience that with 10,000 times the voltage a person could be expected to withstand coursing through him, the scientist was approaching – no, exceeding – the limits of endurance. His body vibrated. His shoes shook. His hands were clenched into fists. His jaw chattered, and when he spoke next it was with gritted teeth. “Two… hundred… thousand.” Tesla exclaimed, his long face now crimson under the strain.
At 250,000 he stopped. The audience breathed a sigh of relief. He then did something which silenced the last cynic in the audience:
He picked up from a low table a simple light bulb and thrust it aloft, and in his naked grasp the bulb, dead one second before, came to life, bathing him in orange light. Moans of adoration dwelled about him.
There were, of course, consequences for both men:
Thomas Edison and Tesla were mentioned in a press dispatch as potential laureates to share the Nobel Prize of 1915, leading to one of several Nobel Prize controversies. Some sources have claimed that because of their animosity toward each other neither was given the award, despite their scientific contributions; that each sought to minimize the other's achievements and right to win the award; that both refused ever to accept the award if the other received it first; and that both rejected any possibility of sharing it. – Wikipedia
If you know a bit about electricity it’s easy to explain how Tesla’s party trick worked and why he didn’t fry himself. Edison explains it later in the book. It’s all to do with the difference between amps and volts. Or maybe ohms. I make no pretence to understand it.
I enjoyed this book. On the surface it’s nothing like his other books but that’s not a bad thing; different does not equal bad. It contains some gentle humour and is nowhere near a dry as it could have been. Much of the credit has to go the way the author has fleshed out his characters; they are real, vibrant (often eccentric) people but also real people. There’s a side to Edison—and Morgan even more so—that’s not very nice. Morgan starts off as a businessman and “It’s just business” could have been tattooed across his chest and yet we also get to see his human side too; at his heart he’s quite the tragic character. Edison, on the other hand, is forced into the position of becoming a businessman and it doesn’t suit him one bit. What humanises him are his relationships with his two hard put upon wives, Mary (who died in 1884 at the age of 29) and her replacement Mina (who he married in 1886 and who outlived him). He’s not the best husband in the world—what driven man could be?—but there is a genuine affection between them once they can get his attention. Most touching is the way they send each other messages in Morse code—both wives learned it. (Edison’s first two children to his first wife, Marion and Thomas, were nicknamed ‘Dot’ and ‘Dash’ by the way.)
If the book has any weaknesses it’s due to the fact that it’s not a full blown biography but if it were and had just stuck to the facts it would lose all its colour and charm. Hard to imagine a book like this as a page-turner but it turns into one. That, for me, is neither here nor there. What struck me from the very first chapter—entitled ‘A Vignette’—was the quality of the language. It’s December 31st 1899. Here’s how the book opens:
The inventor poured himself a glass of milk and listened for the twentieth century. A few seconds remained on the clock, but as part of a personal experiment he wanted to drain the milk before the first chimes of midnight.
The century which the New York Times had gone so far as to dedicate to him, naming him “its most significant contributor”, was suddenly a mere anecdote. And he was pleased it was over. Hopefully, he thought, the veneration of him as a God would be over soon as well; also the ludicrous quips that his name was so synonymous with anything new that the very idea of a new century must have come out of his laboratory. No, he wouldn’t regret the closing of “the Eighteens” – good riddance. Let this new century find its new messiah.
McCarten chooses his words carefully and uses language appropriate to the period. I have no doubt that purists will find something to criticise but I’m not one of those. McCarten admits to artistic license, but who is to say if his Thomas Edison is not an accurate portrayal or a complete and utter fabrication? At the end of the day it is a novel, it’s made up of lies that somehow transform into various truths when the covers are opened. I make no bones about it, this is not a book I would have picked up in a bookshop, but that’s why I do these reviews because you never know what is going to electrify you in the nicest way possible or be a shock to the system. This one was … I’m sorry, I’m going to be predictable again and say it … just brilliant.
His guest post over at Elizabeth Baines’ blog entitled ‘Fast and Loose’ is worth a read too if you tend to be the kind of reader who relishes finding inaccuracies in historical novels and his post over at what sarah reads is also of interest because there he reveals how Brilliant managed to find its way from a mountain of research into a play before it finally became a novel.
Anthony McCarten’s debut novel, Spinners, won international acclaim, and was followed by The English Harem and the award winning Death of a Superhero, all three books being translated into many languages. McCarten has also written twelve stage plays, including the worldwide success Ladies’ Night, which won France’s Molière Prize, the Meilleure Pièce Comique, in 2001. Also a film-maker, he has thrice adapted his own plays or novels into feature films which he directed himself. He has another book out this year too: In The Absence Of Heroes—a sequel to Death of a Superhero—has been published by Random House in his native New Zealand.