Every Avenue of History: The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

Time is, in a sense, the only subject of The Lost Time Accidents. Scientific progress, obsession, consciousness, betrayal, history, love… John Wray’s fourth novel argues that without the oppressive ticking of life’s clock, none of these things matter.

But the novel — Wray’s most audacious and intelligent, a prospect that’ll thrill those familiar with his oeuvre — also argues that time is humanity’s scapegoat, a nifty excuse for our perpetual refusal to reckon with our failures. Moreover, it’s overflowing with sensory depictions of time passing (or failing to pass). How time feels and how this feeling changes with context are predominant concerns of the book. I found myself reading The Lost Time Accidents with a Milan Kundera quote in mind: “A novel is often, it seems to me, nothing but a long quest for some elusive definitions.” In this novel, Wray presents us with a dialectic that moves toward a definition of time.

If time influences everything, then the novel is the perfect way to explore it; the form allows for as much multivalence as the world, and in the best examples, multivalence exists in tone as well as subject matter. Fortunately, John Wray writes books for those of us who have as little patience for stodginess as we do for frivolity. The Lost Time Accidents is funny and fleet-footed. It can be meditative and thrilling on the same page. It bends your mind as it breaks your heart.

Waldy Tolliver, the book’s narrator, says that “the universe exists to give time something to play with.” He repeatedly suggests that time and space and thought, contrary to our feeble human perception, might not exist as discrete entities. The book presents itself as Waldy Tolliver’s lengthy spurned-lover’s letter to a woman he only ever calls “Mrs. Haven.” He says, “I’m writing to tell you about The Lost Time Accidents.” The Lost Time Accidents are supposedly his great-grandfather’s unheeded alternative to Einstein’s theory of relativity, though Waldy must recount several hundred pages of Tolliver family history before he finally gets to it. “If the past of a given event — let’s call it event X — might be considered as all things that can influence X (as mainstream physicists claim), then the whole of human history can be thought of as the past of our affair.” Such is the principle he’s operating under.

The Lost Time Accidents exists in three planes of time. The first is the recent past, Waldy’s impassioned address to Mrs. Haven, recounting their relationship. Next is the deeper past. Waldy’s family history starts with his great-grandfather, Ottokar Toula, a Czech “amateur physicist, pickler by trade” and discoverer of The Lost Time Accidents. It continues through the life of Ottokar’s nebbishy son Kaspar, who changed the family surname, and on to Kaspar’s own children — creepy twin daughters and a son, Orson Card Tolliver, a famous sci-fi writer, Waldy’s father. Outside of this direct lineage, but orbiting around it, is Waldemar, Ottokar’s younger son, the Black Timekeeper of Auschenwald-Czas. He is the proprietor of a concentration camp and conductor of diabolical time-travel experiments on Holocaust victims. He is also Waldy’s namesake. The Black Timekeeper makes for a chilling but lively villain who embodies the horrors of the 20th century, and his experiments showcase how the cold bureaucracy of the scientific method can dovetail with the cold bureaucracy of genocide. Waldy’s history is both a record of his family and an indictment of them.

The novel’s third temporal plane is 8:47 in the morning, the day Waldy writes this history. He is in his aunts’ Spanish Harlem apartment, and it is 8:47 in the morning, and it stays 8:47 a. m. for far longer than it should.

“I woke up to find myself excused from time,” the book’s first line, is noticeably similar to the opening declaration of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, another novel that uses an achronological framework to explore the atrocities of the 20th century. Though “excused from time” comes to take on multiple meanings in a way that Vonnegut’s “unstuck in time” never does, Vonnegut’s fingerprints are still on every page of The Lost Time Accidents. The book’s jocularly despairing tone is especially reminiscent of the late satirist, and Wray’s tremendously fun descriptions of pulp sci-fi plots, which could have come as easily from Kilgore Trout as Orson Card Tolliver, feel like an homage.

Another author who left a mark on The Lost Time Accidents seems to be Gabriel Garcia Márquez. A multigenerational saga, protagonists trapped by the past, an author unconstrained by traditional realism… I could be talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude here. Wray also deploys a narrative technique I associate with Gabo: he’ll reveal a major plot point right at the outset, and then circle the story back, give you all the lead-up, and when the event you already knew was coming comes, it still manages to startle you. You know from the first few pages that Mrs. Haven wants nothing more to do with Waldy, but when you reach the point where he finds out for himself, it’s shattering.

Despite a Whiting Award, accolades from Granta, and James Wood’s certified stamp of approval, John Wray remains a gravely underappreciated writer. His prior novels include two works of historical fiction, The Right Hand of Sleep (2001) and Canaan’s Tongue (2005), and another book that’s one part police procedural, one part hallucination. Lowboy (2009) is about a schizophrenic teenager who’s tragically disconnected with what the rest of us conspire to call reality. (In a sense, The Lost Time Accidents is about four generations of Lowboys.) The earlier novel lacks the intellectual heft, architectonic sweep, intricate plot mechanics, and sense of humor that all contribute to make The Lost Time Accidents a better book, but the language of Lowboy operates with acute psychological purpose, and you can’t say that about The Lost Time Accidents. Language does remain important to Wray; his interest in names remains (everyone in his work seems to have multiple monikers, including the author himself — ”John Wray” is a pseudonym), and this book has a notable interest in familial lexicons. Duration, for example, is the Toula/Tolliver family’s synonym for life.

Nevertheless, Wray’s writing here, though nimble and limpid, lacks both the exactitude and the insanity of his older work. In particular, the narrator’s got some rankling tics. Some justify themselves, such as Waldy’s constant use of time markers, stating the date/hour or using phrases like “afterwards” and “long ago,” which work as a reminder of our inability to escape from time’s forward motion. But when it becomes clear that, despite there being several female characters, the novel distinctly lacks femininity, and Waldy says that all the men in his family have a type (“Kaspar had always had a weakness for tomboys — I suppose, Mrs. Haven, that it runs in the family…”), I wonder if he’s making excuses for his author’s imaginative limitations. And when the tenth simile appears in as many pages, too many of them relying on at-hand familiarity, the author’s pen-clenching hand obtrudes into view, looking shaky from exhaustion. In a one-paragraph sex scene, lovers fornicate “like love-struck baboons,” a woman straddles a man “like a cyclist,” and her settee cracks “like the shell of an overboiled egg.” This is all supposed to be very sexy and evocative, but it has the opposite effect.

Some of the book’s other problems are the unfortunate byproducts of success. The Black Timekeeper burns so hot on the page that he sucks the oxygen out of proceeding scenes. Also, Wray clearly delights in storytelling, using subtle hints and surprises that work together with devastating force, like primed explosives in a controlled demolition. But sometimes he tosses in inconsequential little firecrackers, fake twists that amount to nothing.

But The Lost Time Accidents is a big book — bigger than its problems. And a novel is its own kind of journey through time and space and thought. The Lost Time Accidents shows that though time’s the most ineluctable of the three, thought might be the most powerful. “Imagination is a form of time travel, after all, however bumbling and incomplete,” Waldy says. “And every history is an act of subterfuge.”

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