The Lost Time Accidents has that residual radiation of something consuming that its author had to expel, an experiment in form and craft that lingers upon completion.
While reading The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray, three other books came to mind. The first was Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut’s “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” echoes in the complaint of Wray’s protagonist, Waldy Tolliver: “This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time.” The second was Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay for its density of prose and polysyllabic heft. The third was Home Land by Sam Lypsite. Lypsite and Wray share a structure of time-stamping their chapters while their hyper-educated narrators tell their stories. But while time moves for Lypsite’s Lewis Miner, it is almost always 08:47 EST for Waldy Tolliver.
Being excused from time isn’t as delightful as it might sound. Tolliver is trapped in the Spanish Harlem apartment of his two dead aunts as time spins “like a galaxy around its focal hub – at the hub everything is quiet.” Trapped in this singularity, he makes his way to his aunt’s library, finds a ream of paper and begins to pen the history of his family and the obsession that has plagued generations: the lost time accidents. Simply put, the Toula-Silbermann-Tolliver clan is obsessed with the secret of time travel.
The story of the accidents begins in Moravia. It is 1903 and Waldy’s great-great grandfather Ottokar Toula is about to die. Ottokar doesn’t know this. He was just crossing the street, alight with the joy of an evening with his mistress and the satisfaction of a sudden creative breakthrough. A professional pickle merchant and amateur physicist, Ottokar has just scrawled down the answer to the great quandary he has shared with his sons like some family hobby. He has puzzled together something about the nature of time, but like his sons, we never find out what he posits for Ottokar is felled by an automobile. His cryptic notes are strewn on the snowy street. Not all are recovered.
His sons, Kaspar and Waldemar (Waldy’s namesake), take up the mantle. They move to Vienna, a city brimming with ideas and discoveries that are altering man’s understanding of his place in the universe. Kaspar is slowly learning that he is a mediocre scientist while Waldemar is always a step behind Einstein. Waldemar eventually places his intellect in the service of the Nazis and performs experiments on prisoners in a concentration camp. Waldy believes his great uncle used time travel to escape retribution for his crimes and has set out to right this wrong.
Solving the puzzle of the accidents falls to Waldy’s aunts, Enzian and Gentian, in New York City of the 1960s (another time of tumultuous ideas), then to Waldy’s father – Orson Card Tolliver, a pulp science fiction writer whose work is used as the basis for a cult known as the United Church of Synchronology. To further complicate matters, the founder of the church, R.P. Haven, is the husband of Mrs. Haven, Waldy’s great love to whom he addresses so much of his family history.
This is not a book with an elevator pitch. It is a sprawling epic about the ghosts of the 20th century and metaphysical issues like the nature of love and time. Wray is an aggressively intelligent and clever writer at work blending science fiction, the historical epic and the philosophical manifesto into something seminal. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with its genre virtuosity, also comes in mind as a forebear when Wray inserts chapters of pulp sci-fi and a Didion-esque essay into his epic. But where Mitchell’s experiment in interlocking novellas was precise in its execution, The Lost Time Accidents can get lost in the density of its big ideas. It can be confusing at times, even dense, but Wray never commits the sin of monotony.
I don’t know if writers experience joy or mainly relief when the work gets done and the galleys printed. I do know ideas can be consuming until they finally reach the page. The Lost Time Accidents has that residual radiation of something consuming that its author had to expel, an experiment in form and craft that lingers upon completion. Like the singularity that confines Waldy Tolliver, it is “a point in spacetime where the laws of the cosmos have snapped.” And where there are no laws something wonderfully chaotic can flourish.