- Publish Date
- Friday, 16 December 2016, 12:27PM
- By Stephanie Jones
“On the day that he would first meet Thomas Edison, Paul watched a man burn alive in the sky above Broadway.” Novelist and screenwriter Graham Moore’s opening line in The Last Days of Night recalls the mind-blowing first sequence of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love – the upward glance, the dawning horror – and sets an incendiary tone for a novel peopled by some of history’s most provocative imagineers, from Edison to his rival, George Westinghouse, the man who connected them, Nikola Tesla, and Alexander Graham Bell, whom Moore depicts, hilariously, as refusing to own or use his magnificent invention: “Horrid things. Infernally loud.”
New York City in 1888 is a place of boundless possibility, where wealth is “burbling up from beneath these very streets” and John Jacob Astor has surpassed Queen Victoria in riches. Paul Cravath, scion of a socially modest but politically progressive family, is embroiled in litigation with Thomas Edison over the legend-making question of who invented the light bulb that is now slowly spreading outward from the toniest streets of Manhattan.
Paul meets a man webbed in myth and money and confident of besting Paul and his client, George Westinghouse, whom Edison is suing for an inconceivable $1 billion. (For context, Astor was worth $87 million when he perished on the Titanic the following century.) Edison appears not as a genius but a salesman and professional adversary who sets his minions to for-the-sake-of-it experimentation and seeks to fortify his Edison General Electric against legal onslaught. He is also an egoist who savours the power to plunge streets into darkness with a tap of his finger.
“Every true story is a fiction”, Paul tells himself, and as he becomes ever more embroiled in contest with Edison, against whose cunning he and Westinghouse seem outmatched, this historical novel takes on the combustiveness of a fine thriller, complete with life-threatening fire, industrial espionage, and a splendid climactic tete-a-tete with J P Morgan. Tesla’s astonishing intellect and instinctual performativity – he casually demonstrates the making of a shadowgraph, an early X-ray – are memorable facets of a novel replete with twists and fascinations.
In a semi-synoptic endnote Moore separates fact from deviously creative fiction, having blended the two so artfully that the reader emerges entertained and enlightened about an historic fight for power (both kinds) so deathless and absurd it couldn’t be invented. If Moore occasionally dwells too long on the minutiae of the chaotic personalities involved, who can blame him? The three men had, after all, “entirely incompatible ways of approaching science, industry and business,” and the clash of these visions changed the world in ways they believed humanity would not see again.
This captivating story of scientific adventure and raw contest draws to a close amid “the darkening shadow of a country that was just becoming America”, after a conversation between Edison, Westinghouse and Paul about an upstart on the American socioeconomic landscape, whose professionalism is an affront to Edison’s proud experimentalism: “Ford has a goddamn business plan.” The future of American capitalism and salesmanship rises in the mind’s eye like a shadowgraph bearing the silhouette of Donald Trump, a man who might have been born from the mold of his predecessors, but of whose rise beyond the constraints of private enterprise they could never have conceived.
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