Lightning by Jean Echenoz

Lightning ★★★★½
A Novella by Jean Echenoz
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
2011 / 142 Pages

The Setup: 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. (from the hardcover edition)

Make no mistake about it, the protagonist of Jean Echenoz latest novella Lightning, the third and final entry in his “three lives” trilogy, may be named Gregor for some unknown reason, but he is really meant to be a fictional representation of the brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla. Why Echenoz chose to use a fake name for Tesla, but not any of the major players he interacted with over the course of his entire lifetime, famous folk like Westinghouse, Edison, and J.P. Morgan is a bit baffling, but luckily it doesn’t serve as a major point of distraction when it comes to one’s enjoyment of the piece.

With nearly three hundred patents credited to his name, including the invention of alternating current, it would be something of an understatement to proclaim that Tesla was a scientific genius, but like most brilliant minds he was a bit quirky as well. For starters he thought he could converse with Martians, he claimed he could build a death ray, and he had an unhealthy obsession with pigeons. It’s these aspects of his existence, along with his life long feud with Thomas Edison, and his horrible disregard for anything even remotely resembling sound business practices that make up the most interesting bits of Lightning.

Have you ever wondered how the electric chair was invented? Newly arrived in America and all of twenty-eight years old Tesla’s first job was working as an assistant for Thomas Edison and his direct current monopoly, but when the two have a falling out Telsa splits and later invents his system of alternating current. Not happy with this competition, and seeing alternating current as a threat to his livelihood, Edison begins holding public electrocutions of small animals using Tesla’s technology to make people believe that it is far more dangerous than his own. Humans are a finicky bunch though, and they’re also easily bored, so Edison has to continually up the ante. He makes his way up the food chain from small household pets to a giant elephant, but it’s still not enough. He needs to kill a human being to discredit Tesla. He does, with chillingly disgusting results, but in the end it’s still not enough. George Westinghouse snaps up Tesla and his alternating current and the rest, as they say, is history. However in this case Telsa is, as he was in the past and will be in the future, screwed over when it comes to the money end of things.

Echenoz’s prose is enchanting. From the very first moments of the novella, which describe in haunting detail the universal want of all human beings to know and understand exactly when they were born to the heartbreakingly tragic and comically weird final moments of Tesla’s life, Echenoz paints a portrait of a self-assured man, one who has little patience for actually seeing one of his ideas all the way through from the initial design phase to completed construction because of the multitude of other potential inventions rattling around his brain that he simply must begin work on, and even less patience when it comes to matters of carnal pleasure. Neither gay nor straight, Echenoz paints the portrait of a man who could simply care less when it came to having any semblance of sexual desire.

As much praised by the scientific community for his brilliance as he was scorned by them for eccentricities and sometimes baffling ideas Tesla, and/or his fictional counterpart Gregor, rose and fell in prominence throughout his lifetime. He’s rich one moment and almost just as quickly bankrupt the next, but through it all his brain never stops focusing on the art of inventing. His passion finds him jumping the gun and proclaiming things to the world that he shouldn’t which more often than not gets him into a bit of trouble. In fact it seems that Tesla wrote the book on being one’s own worst enemy.

Still, through his brilliant command of language Echenoz manages to turn such a strange, almost bizarrely larger than life character into a tender, relatable, deeply moving individual. For all his puzzling flaws the reader can’t help but wish success on Gregor/Tesla.

Clocking in at only 142 pages Lightning is quick read. In fact its length may be the novella’s only flaw in that it’s so good that it manages to instantly grab the reader and takes them on a wonderful journey with a truly unique individual that ends far too soon. However historical fiction of this caliber is hard to come by and this one should most certainly not be overlooked because of its smaller size.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.