Tesla, aged 40. c. 1896
Genius, futurist, underdog: there are plenty of qualities about inventor Nikola Tesla that have made him a compelling subject for fiction. Samantha Hunt’s acclaimed 2008 novel The Invention of Everything Else focused on his last days, when he lived at the Hotel New Yorker; Matt Fraction and Steven Sanders’s 2006 graphic novel The Five Fists of Science posited him as a pulp hero, teaming up with Mark Twain to battle Lovecraftian conspiracies and his arch-rival Thomas Edison. Then there's Christopher Nolan’s cinematic adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, in which Tesla makes a memorable appearance, played by David Bowie, leaving no doubt: Nikolai Tesla now occupies a vaunted cultural space somewhere between rock star and artistic icon.
Tesla, then, lived a life many feel compelled to revisit. And so looking at Vladimir Pištalo’s Tesla: A Portrait With Masks, a question comes to mind: is this a novel that adds something to the already-expansive canon of Fictional Tesla? Thankfully, the answer is yes -- but this isn’t necessarily apparent from the outset. The deliberate and stately pace of Pištalo’s novel, which encompasses the vast majority of Tesla’s life, leaves the reader with the initial impression that this will be a more traditional work. Instead, it emerges as a sort of collage, one that evokes Tesla’s wide-ranging interests through a series of styles, and (in its own way) acknowledging its own role in advancing the mythology of its subject.
While the tone of Pištalo’s novel is largely realistic, there are certain dreamlike interludes. Early on, as a young Nikola is on the brink of death from cholera, his father argues with the devil; later in the book, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor makes a cameo. Like Sean Michaels’s recent Us Conductors, about the life of Léon Theremin, this is a novel that juxtaposes the intellectual with the quietly metaphysical. (Running a search for "Nikola Tesla metaphysics" will provide a window into some of the more wide-ranging aspects of his influence.) But outside of the more overtly stylized aspects of the novel, Tesla provides a subtler juxtaposition as well. “At this point of the story, I have to gently but firmly take the reader by the arm, as we are about to step into legend,” Pištalo writes towards the end of one early chapter. In it, Tesla engages in a "drinking duel" during his days as a student. Pištalo offers conflicting versions of the narrative -- but on the next page, Tesla awakens with a hangover, all possibilities leading to the same outcome.
Pištalo’s focus here is less on the overt drama of Tesla’s life and more on notions of interconnectedness -- with family, peers, and spaces ranging from hotel rooms to his laboratory on Long Island, Wardenclyffe Tower. (A campaign is now afoot to turn that space into a museum and science center.) Edison and a circle of wealthy industrialists certainly make appearances here, but other historical figures occupy larger roles and make for a more interesting experience. Architect Sanford White, for instance -- who designed the aforementioned Long Island laboratory -- becomes a recurring presence in the middle of the novel, which also takes into account his murder.
By novel’s end, Tesla has become a haunted man, both figuratively and literally, disappearing into his own memories and into conversations with editor and science fiction icon Hugo Gernsback. (The founder of the journal Electrical Experimenter and the founder of Amazing Stories, Gernsback is the namesake of the Hugo Award, given annually to works of science fiction and fantasy.) Pištalo presents the two here as kindred spirits. Tesla’s relationship with Gersback also led to the writing of My Inventions, his autobiography.
In the second half of the novel, as Tesla discusses his plan to transmit electricity wirelessly, he asks, "How can newspapers survive if everyone possesses a cheap machine to print their own news?" It’s one of the less subtle lines in Pištalo’s book, an overt nod to Tesla’s abilities to predict the future. (It’s not for nothing that the founders of Tesla Motors named their company after the inventor in question.) And while the gradual dissolution of Tesla’s life’s work is the stuff of quiet tragedy, his posthumous canonization has made for an exceptional postscript to an even more exceptional life. Both in science and in culture, he remains a legend, and Tesla deftly encompasses the wide-ranging aspects of his life.