Published by Alma Books Limited (Bloomsbury)
Friday, July 06, 2012
Brilliance by Anthony McCarten - Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith
This is an impressive book. It is a slim hard-back with a black and gold cover, just a light-bulb on the front and the back, the only difference, an electric chair inside the bulb on the front cover. It looks very serious and it is a serious subject, but a most fascinating and page-turning read. McCarten has chosen Thomas Alva Edison as his subject and fictionally recreated his life. Some of the details are just so deliciously quirky that you feel they have to be true, and too, some are so gruesome, that you know they must be true. Here is where Google and the internet prove most useful, checking out such things.
I was absolutely fascinated, and not only is it a thoroughly good read, it is also illuminating (couldn’t resist the pun). I learned so much about Edison and the battle between him and Westinghouse over the use of AC and DC electricity. McCarten has re-imagined Thomas Edison with all his ambition and flaws, his two marriages and his sometimes unscrupulous behaviour when faced with competition. It won’t matter if you know quite a lot about Edison, I am sure this fictional re-telling of his life will be equally riveting. J.P. Morgan is also a central character in the book and indeed, the story is not just the life of Edison and his inventions, but too the beginnings of corporate America. And tellingly, as J. P. Morgan falls from grace, recognition of something very current and familiar. “Will you admit, sir, that you preside over a banking system that has seen this country exposed to two decades of brutal mergers and a carnival atmosphere on Wall Street which has triggered booms and busts in insane succession?”
I was reminded too, of Steve Jobs, so recently deceased and so beloved (by all the Apple aficionados) – the background to his story, the fiercely competitive nature of the business, the adoration and the criticism. Both men, Edison and Jobs, inventors, but also good at interpreting and using other people’s ideas.
For anyone who knows as little as I did (before reading this book) about the introduction of electricity to our lives, this is indeed a very easy history lesson. The story is well constructed, beginning with a vignette, Edison and his second wife, and the start of the 20th century and then going back to 1878, Edison having just invented the phonograph in 1877, is now working on the electric light bulb. The author manages to interweave historical fact and to re-imagine personal details that the reader is very much assured that this is exactly how it happened, and that yes, you are there right with Edison in all his great triumphs and misfortune. It takes a skilful writer to turn fact into fiction in such an uncluttered and convincing way. A delightful aspect of Edison’s romance with both his wives is that they communicate by Morse code (Edison suffers from deafness and can only hear at a certain decibels).
The most compelling moments being the build-up to the introduction of the electric chair, famously called the Westinghouse, but pioneered by Edison to discredit Westinghouse’s favoured AC current. McCarten writes about the experiments with animals in trials for the electric chair and then re-enacts the very first human execution. The writing is spare and calm in a way that seductively lures the reader into the very heart of the matter without wasting words or overlaying sentiment, so that you are left to your own response to the horror. Edison never quite can forgive himself for this and near the end of his life, he is remembering the invention of the incandescent lamp and the first human electrocution “twin memories: one negative, the other positive, forming a closed circuit through which the currents of the past flowed without end.”
In the ‘author’s note’ at the back of the book, McCarten says this: “As ever, the writer of a fiction based on fact relies on the discerning reader to weigh the two commodities.” And further on, after citing the biographers and historians he has used for reference, he adds “Compared to their scholarly labours I did not more than swirl a teacup and watch a story suggest itself in the leaves.” And a very fine swirl it must have been because the leaves have landed to create a most compelling and interesting story scattered through with philosophical insights into the human condition, ambition, and the corrupting influence of money. I hesitate to say the obvious, that ‘Brilliance’ is brilliant, but yes, it does have a touch of that I reckon.
I’m intrigued to, that we hear so little about Anthony McCarten and yet he is touted on the back cover in a quote from the International Herald Tribune as ‘One of New Zealand’s most exciting literary exports”. Many of you may well have seen his highly successful play ‘Ladies Night’, 2001 and it says his most successful novels to date are ‘Spinners’, ‘the English Harem; and ‘Death of a Superhero’ all published by Alma Books.
Published by Alma Books Limited (Bloomsbury)
Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular guest reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.