Out(side) of Time: Review of John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents

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The Lost Time Accidents
John Wray
(Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

We humans are haunted by all sorts of demons, but funnel them each to their origin and they can be broadly said to have two sources: family and time. Family is the ur-text of identity: the alleles and curses bestowed as a birthright, the lineage you are born into and which you cannot choose or change. And time: it contains the past, that infinite closet where one’s skeletons are stowed, that all-important variable in the equation of regret. You can move to the other side of the world, but time only moves in one direction. Or does it?

The constancy (or lack thereof) of identity and time is the subject of John Wray’s dizzyingly ambitious and inventive new novel, The Lost Time Accidents. Part globehopping whodunit, part intergenerational drama, part sci-fi potboiler, The Lost Time Accidents is sustained, like all of Wray’s novels, by the awesome connective power of his imagination. (Previous Wray protagonists include a 16-year-old schizophrenic in New York and a 19th century bandit operating along the Mississippi River.)

The hero of The Lost Time Accidents is Waldemar “Waldy” Tolliver, a college-aged geek who wakes one morning to find himself “excused from time,” in an opening line that echoes Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, another work of slipstream fiction, published during the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Unlike with Gregor Samsa, the cause of Tolliver’s predicament is eventually explained by the author, although it takes some 500 pages to arrive. In the long meanwhile, the novel skips from Manhattan and Buffalo to Vienna and Moravia, from 1903 to the consensus present, and from Einstein’s theory of relativity to the United Church of Synchronology.

All of this is put to paper by Waldy in a letter to a lost lover, the enigmatic Mrs. Haven, which alternates with an explanatory genealogy he’s composing in order to lay bare the origin and consequences of a secret knowledge that has haunted his family for generations. “I want to make a pilgrimage back along the causal chain: to line up my mistakes in a row, for the sake of comparison, with those of all my star-crossed ancestors,” he writes. These two intratextual works themselves sample from diary entries, postwar sci-fi pulp, the New York Times, and other sources, real and imagined. (Wray is an ace ventriloquist; one send-up of a Joan Didion article is particularly funny.) This mise en abyme of texts reminds us that stories have always been how we organize and interpret what will become the past–that the past, in fact, becomes tellable only in the telling. Some of our oldest literature, dating back to Plato and One Thousand and One Nights, contains similar interlocking structures.

Waldy’s history begins, fittingly enough, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the century, and at a scientific breakthrough made by Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, Waldy’s great-grandfather. A pickler by trade and physicist by habit in the Moravian backwater of Znojmo (“the gherkin capital of the Hapsburg Empire”), Ottokar had lately been engaged in a “series of experimental inquiries into the physical nature of time”–namely, that it is fluid, rather than linear–leading him to the tantalizing discovery that free movement within time was possible, when he was struck and killed by a motorcar on June 12, 1903.

“It was an era of chaos and confusion and nearly limitless possibility,” Waldy writes, “a kind of panicked conceptual goldrush.” And indeed, at nearly the same time in Bern, a patent clerk was finalizing a theorem that would upend two centuries of Newtonian mechanics by showing that space and time are not, in fact, constants, but instead are interwoven in a continuum. If time is inseparable from space, then there are at least four dimensions (x, y, z, and t), meaning that time travel is, theoretically, possible. The patent clerk’s theorem became known as the special theory of relativity.

Due to his untimely demise, Ottokar wasn’t able to pursue the full implications of this knowledge, but his two sons follow in his footsteps. Kaspar and Waldemar Toula matriculate to the University of Vienna, indulging in all the capital’s prelapsarian splendor. The city was a “garish, fetid flower, sprouting brightly from the slack jaws of a corpse,” and their paths cross with a who’s-who of Viennese intelligentsia, Klimt and Wittgenstein among them.

For a short while, the brothers jointly pursue the skeleton key that will unlock their father’s discovery. But world war comes, and then a second war, cleaving apart their fates. Kaspar changes his last name to Tolliver and emigrates with his family to New York, where his eccentric daughters Enzian and Gentian later transform a Harlem apartment into a site of both groundbreaking scientific discovery and hip monthly dinner parties, and his son Orson grows up to write a wackadoo sci-fi bestseller that inadvertently spawns a Scientology-esque cult amongst its Aquarian-era adherents.

Waldemar’s fate, meanwhile, takes a far darker turn. Intoxicated by the power of his ideas, he becomes corrupted by them, and is enlisted in the Nazi party’s “guild of racial mystics.” The Gestapo appoint him facility director of the Äschenwald-Czas concentration camp, where he’s free to conduct time experiments on the prisoners. The Black Timekeeper of Czas, as he is known to history, only barely escapes, and his presence haunts The Lost Time Accidents. His grand-nephew Waldy–his namesake, and our narrator–takes it upon himself to wash this stain from the family history, a task that will take both across the world and outside the timestream.

If this sounds like a lot of plot, well, it is, and though the structure mostly holds together, you can see the wires. The novel’s frequent skips through time make the linear chronology hard to follow at points, though Wray may appreciate the irony of readers jumping back and forth through this great gearbox of a novel he’s constructed. And Wray circulates through so many ideas and locations and characters that the novel loses some of its zip. (The speed of light may be a constant, but the expression of talent, however formidable, is not.)

However, despite its flaws, I keep returning to a line early in the book: “Imagination is a form of time travel, after all, however bumbling and incomplete.” For the quantum physicist, there must be no greater thrill than the concept of time travel; for the avid reader, there are few thrills greater than seeing an explosion of original ideas expressed on the page. The more unlikely, the better. At its core, The Lost Time Accidents is a book about those old, seeming-constants of life: family and time. About who we are, and why we’re here now. It may not be as elegant as E=mc2, but Wray has tried to give us time travel instead, however bumbling and incomplete.

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