Brilliance, by Anthony McCarten review

by Michael Larsen / 19 May, 2012
Anthony McCarten rewrites his 2003 novel about Thomas Edison.
Anyone with an interest in Anthony McCarten’s work may look at the title Brilliance and think: haven’t we been here before? We have. Brilliance, the 2012 version, is a reworking of McCarten’s 2003 novel about the life of Thomas Alva Edison, the great inventor. His premise for the rewrite shows the perfectionist in him: he felt the original book was “one that got away” and so, presented with the opportunity to deliver it as a script for a potential theatre production, has “line by line, rewritten, restructured and re-conceived” the original.

That original story was told in mostly linear fashion, and detailed, as does the new one, the dealings between Edison and J Pierpont Morgan, the relationship between inventor and banker being a rich source for McCarten to mine. It provides plenty of scope to explore the struggle Edison had balancing his desire to, literally, light up humanity, and the deal with the devil he had to make to secure the funds to do so. That story – and this – focuses on the great man’s great achievements – particularly the lightbulb and the phonograph, while bringing into the light, too, his not so wholesome legacy: the electric chair.

The conception of this came about through his wanting to discredit Nikola Tesla and his backer, entrepreneur George Westinghouse (he went so far as to name the chair the Westinghouse Chair). The idea was to show it was the lethal AC current that ensured the chair did its job, opening the way for Edison’s beloved DC current to find favour the world over. The whole thing and the interminable termination time of its first victim, the dapper William Kemmler, provides some of the best writing in the novel; it also left a nasty stain on Edison’s otherwise immaculate reputation.

The new Brilliance covers the same ground, but dividing the book structurally into a “then and now” scenario lends much greater humanity to both men, as Edison, looking back, is wistful and compassionate, if not entirely self-forgiving. My complaint when reviewing the original version of the novel was that neither major character was particularly likeable: they both come out better in this account. Morgan was not likeable anyway and Edison abandoned his family, effectively, to pursue the workings in his mind, but McCarten succeeds this time in making them more human, their frailties forgivable rather than contemptible. Initially, it was a case of great story, interesting time of history, opportunity lost. Now, we have a great tale, well written and so much more, dare I say it, illuminating than the one that preceded it.

BRILLIANCE, by Anthony McCarten (Alma, $39.99).

Michael Larsen is a writer and reviewer.
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