A Novel
Jean Echenoz
Linda Cloverdale

(The New Press)
"We all like to know, if possible, exactly when we were born," writes Echenoz at the beginning of Lightning.

    We prefer to be aware of the numerical moment when it all takes off, when the business begins with air, light, perspective, the nights and the heartbreaks, the pleasures and the days.

It will never be a sure thing for Gregor. "A few minutes before he wriggles out of his mother ... a most violent storm arises." Thus no one is there to record if he was born before or after midnight, so, his is a birth "outside of time."

His was a life outside of time too. And possibly reason. He was one who could visualize complete inventions, whole systems --- which he could sketch drawing from his internal "memory" --- systems which in the late 19th Century had not been conceived of. Thermomagnetic motors, alternating current, steam plants, geothermal power, electricity from seawater, the loudspeaker, X-rays, and the ultimate invention --- the Teleforce weapon --- "the death ray."

Gregor had a certain charm, the charm of one who was a genius, and knew it, and knew how to convey his genius to others. He met with the financial titans of the time, charmed them, soothed them, got financing for his projects. Especially J. P. Morgan, the fabulously rich man who preferred to keep out of the public eye, who (mostly) would not permit photographs. Because of his nose.

    No man has ever been or ever will be saddled with such a nose [writes Echenoz] and no one will suffer so much from such an enormous purple appendage creased with crevasses, pimpled with nodules, webbed with fissures, prolonged with lobules, and bristling with hairs.

When Morgan goes out in public, "he is preceded by his legendary, luminous, and voluminous nose, which is like a vehicle with an emergency light at the head of a convoy."

Gregor is a genius, but a bit peculiar. He doesn't like being touched. He thinks the number three is very important to him. He can go for days without sleeping. And he is not at all smart about finances. Morgan offers him a contract that would have made him rich (it has to do with generating electricity) but Gregor tears it up because he wants power to be free for all the people.

His patent for radio --- #645576 --- is poorly drawn, and Sr. Guglielmo Marconi stakes his claim and hits the jackpot. Gregor works with Thomas Edison, who offers him a bonus for his efforts, but Edison laughs when he tries to collect. Gregor offers his ultrasonic listening device to the military, but they yawn. (Later it came to be known as radar).

In fact, according to Echenoz, Gregor is only successful with his first invention (alternating current), with the ladies (he's not interested) ... and with pigeons.

Pigeons? He spends the last years of his eighty-odd years on earth caring for street pigeons from New York City, smuggling them into his dusty hotel room (he has installed tiny pigeon cages, with tiny pigeon showers), eventually developing "a secret bond" with one --- giving her the love he could never offer to the women who were always interested in him.

His reward? Do the pigeons thank him? Do they care for him? Nonsense: in Gregor's world --- where everyone screws Gregor --- the pigeons screw Gregor. One winter evening, as he goes out for his evening walk, the pigeons fall en mass upon the windshield of a nearby cruising Dusenberg, blinding the driver, who runs over Gregor. He is done for.

How about the author of Lightning? What does he think of Gregor and his pigeons? "Personally, I've had about enough of them, these pigeons. And you've had enough of them too, I can tell."

    We've had enough of them and to tell the truth, fickle and ungrateful things that they are, the pigeons themselves have had enough of Gregor.

Maybe we've had enough of Gregor, too. He dies in his room in the Hotel New Yorker, and it is three days before anyone notices. Polished off by pigeons, a Dusenberg, and general disinterest.

Nowhere is it noted that Echenoz has been writing (with considerable charm) about a fictional "Gregor" ... really giving us the life of the non-fictional Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943): the man who invented AC, the loudspeaker, feedback (essential for amplification), the concept of remote control, radio, radar, the spark plug, radio-controlled boats, torpedoes, the helicopter, and an "ion-propelled aircraft --- no engine, wings, ailerons, propellers, or an onboard fuel source."

Oh, there is a tiny mention, on the page of credits, after the title page. In five-point type: "The author would like to thank Margaret Cheney (author of Tesla: Man Out of Time)."

Thus does our poor genius get his due.

--- Richard Saturday
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