Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Thomas Alva Edison, the subject of Brilliance, presided over a workshop that produced hundreds of inventions patented in his name, perhaps most iconically the electric lightbulb. His life has become a sort of Rorschach test for novelists and historians. Was he the benign and brilliant "Wizard of Menlo Park"? A cheat who underpaid his employees and claimed their inventions as his own? A cut-throat competitor who would use any means to drive his rivals out of business?
Brilliance is a short, intense novel portraying a man drowning in moral quandaries. Edison is restless, short-tempered, idealistic, self-centered. Strong-willed in pursuing the success of his inventions, he is weak-willed when facing pressure to compromise his values in that pursuit. The story keeps a tight focus on Edison's relationship with banking plutocrat J.P. Morgan, whose seemingly infinite supply of money and scant supply of patience goaded Edison to set aside one scruple after another. In the attempt to demonstrate that direct electrical current, pioneered by Edison, was safer than the alternating current promoted by George Westinghouse, Edison's commitment to nonviolence wavered, and he ordered lab workers to electrocute stray dogs and develop an electric chair, run on alternating current, as a means of capital punishment.
Is Morgan, his grotesquely swollen nose a metaphor for a diseased conscience, villain enough to excuse Edison's fall from grace? Does the novel end on a note of forgiveness for the elderly, soul-sick Edison, reluctant to face a tribute honoring him for electric light and the economic boom that accompanied it? Or are the crowds who cheer for him in August of 1929 a deep irony that lets no one off the hook - least of all the readers consuming electricity more profligately than ever in a world despoiled by our hunger for energy? (2013, 213 pages)More about Brilliance at Powell's Books or Amazon.com