The Lost Time Accidents
By John Wray
Farrar Straus & Giroux
491 pages, $27
By Ed Taylor
Besides love in its fractal, elemental complexities, is there anything with which humans are more obsessed than time?
From physics to history to religion to art, from mundane daily life to the highest peaks of human cultural achievement, humans wrestle with the enigmas of time, beginning with the fundamental one: What exactly is it? We exist in time like fish in water; it’s something so woven into the warp of our existence that we breathe it, and, taken out of it, we die.
Or do we? That is a question asked by John Wray’s doorstop of a novel “The Lost Time Accidents,” maybe the central one, and it offers an answer. Time, or the chronosphere as it’s termed here, is the spine of Wray’s big-shouldered story, around which are woven the Holocaust, quantum physics, mercenary secular cults such as Scientology, “C*F*P” (chance, fate, providence, in the narrator’s shorthand), not only Buffalo but Cheektowaga, love, the atomic bomb, obsession, pickle making, Mittel Europa, alchemy, family and writing.
Wray’s novel is a kind of grounded, American fabulism in an epic shape, multigenerational and intercontinental and metaphysical and speculative. If that big, two-handled cup of tea is your kind of drink, “The Lost Time Accidents” will satisfy. And regardless of taste, the novel is an ambitious accomplishment for this writer, named by Granta magazine in 2007 as one of its Best Young American Novelists.
Wray, whose given name is John Henderson, grew up in Buffalo and attended Nichols School. He is a citizen of both the U.S. and Austria, with an American father and Austrian mother, and Austria both literally and metaphorically runs in deep veins through this narrative: in terms of plot beginning and, arguably, ending there – if there is an end, for one of the interesting constructions of the story is its circular nature: It stops, on page 491, where it began, with the same words: “Dear Mrs. Haven – This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time. I can picture you perfectly, reading this letter. You’ll be telling yourself I’ve gone stupid with grief, or that I’ve lost my mind – but my thinking has never been clearer. Believe me, Mrs. Haven, when I tell you that this is no joke. Time moves freely around me, gurgling like a whirlpool, fluxing like a quantum field, spinning like a galaxy around its focal hub – at the hub, however, everything is quiet.”
And so the great chronosphere spins. Mrs. Haven is the married woman with whom the younger narrator, Waldemar Gottfriedens Tolliver, has had a bewitching, intense affair with catastrophic consequences. The first occurrence of that paragraph, as the story begins, introduces Waldy as he is known, who is writing today in the labyrinthine Harlem apartment of his two dead eccentric hoarder aunts; writing a history, of his family. And the labyrinthine essence of those seven rooms is for real in profound ways. And it’s a hell of a family.
And Waldy is no longer part of time.
What follows is a set of braided narratives all recorded by Waldy as he writes the story of his own life and of his family’s obsession with time.
“On June 12, 1903, two hours and forty-five minutes before being killed by a virtually stationary motorcar, my great-grandfather made a discovery that promised to shake the world to its foundations. Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, father of two, amateur physicist, pickler by trade, had spent the morning in his laboratory – a converted brining room directly beneath the Hauptplatz of Znojmo, Moravia, the gherkin capital of the Habsburg Empire – and was about to lock up for the afternoon, when something about the arrangement of objects caught his eye. According to his notes, he spent the better part of a quarter hour perfectly motionless, his right hand still cradling his keys, staring over his left shoulder at the ‘spatial dynamics’ between a crucible, a brining jar, and a slowly desiccating winter pear.”
What follows for Ottokar is either an epiphanic understanding of a fundamental truth about the universe, or a joke, communicated in an acrostic riddle note addressed to his mistress, Marta, who he visited immediately afterward for tarock (a Tarot-like card game), fennel sausage, and a little early afternoon delight.
Leaving Marta, distracted, exalted, triumphant Ottokar absent-mindedly steps into the path of a 15 horsepower Daimler driven by a Viennese dealer in pocket watches. And the rest is history, and also the present and future for the Toula family members who follow: his two physics-student sons, Kaspar and Waldemar, namesake of the narrator (and the name becomes destiny as names sometimes do), Kaspar’s three children – who include Waldy’s writer father, Orson, and his enigmatic and eccentric twin sisters Gentian and Enzian; and finally Waldy, the only Toula left by the contemporary end of the novel.
Wray’s narrative oscillates among the Vienna of Freud and Klimt and the Germany of Hitler and the Holocaust (and then post-war America; and then contemporary Europe and Manhattan). Ottokar’s son Waldemar has his own theories about time, but his unraveling rationality, and obsession with understanding his father’s discovery lead him on an odyssey, through a wilderness of exile and poverty and violence from which he emerges as a leader in a grass-roots fascist movement and rises to prominence in the Third Reich to become the notorious “Black Timekeeper of Aschenwald-Czas” who uses concentration camp prisoners to conduct experiments to prove his own theory of time and claim the scientific stature he feels was stolen from him by “the Postal Clerk,” Einstein.
Waldemar’s brother, Kaspar, revolted by his brother and the state of the world, emigrates to America, changing his name to Tolliver, and builds a watch- and clock-making business in the middle America of Cheektowaga, N.Y. There, Orson, Gentian and Enzian grow up in the 1940s and ’50s, and strike out on their bizarre paths – Orson into the world of pulp speculative fiction (science fiction about time travel among other things) and, eventually, to being the inspiration for a sinister Scientology-like cult that reaches backward and forward in time through the story. Gentian and Enzian take up residence in Harlem, become salon mavens of chic New York and eventual hermits who create, in their apartment, a kind of portal. To what?
Therein lies the rub.
This rich and complex book is difficult to succinctly synopsize. To paraphrase Theodore Roethke, the story moves in circles and the circles move. Waldy narrates the story of his great grandfather, grandfathers, father, and great aunts; of his intersection with Mrs. Haven and her husband, with whom it turns out he had a fated connection; and the mission for which Waldy seems to have been born; and, of a final chess game (in the Ingmar Bergman sense) with the Black Timekeeper of Aschenwald-Czas, who, it turns out, didn’t fully disappear when the Russians “liberated” the camp of which he was in charge.
The tapestry of this novel unfolds in lapidary prose that provides a satisfying voyage through the fun house of the chronosphere – offering insight into the accidents of our own journeys in, and through, time.
Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and the author of the novel “Theo.”