Where is the intersection of time travel, mental illness and unrequited love? It’s a strange question that collects more sense the longer one sits with it. John Wray’s new novel, “The Lost Time Accidents,” is a good place for asking questions that don’t have answers because, like time travel itself, Wray’s novel has blurry edges, open ends.
“The Lost Time Accidents” is an expansive, sprawling — at almost 500 pages, sometimes meandering — circumnavigation of the meaning of time to the 20th-century Western world. A large project. The book spans generations, beginning with quirky Ottokar, a pickler from Znojmo, Moravia, “the gherkin capital of the Habsburg Empire.” Beyond his fermenting business, Ottokar is a philanderer and a physicist who tinkers with ideas of circular time.
His sons, Waldemar and Kaspar, inherit tandem interests in physics despite their drastically different natures. Kaspar is a man of emotion. Waldemar embodies wretchedness at every curve. When he addresses his father’s paramour as a “sausage-chewing sow,” he’s revealing only the slightest glimpse of the evil to come. He is a human without humanity.
An irreparable rupture, slick with the horror of the Third Reich, sets the two brothers on diverging paths. Waldemar climbs into bed with the Nazis to mine their supply of victims for his most atrocious time experiments, while Kaspar marries a free spirit and moves to America to father Orson, Gentian and Enzian. Orson becomes a writer of pulp fictions. Enzie and Genny are sexless mutations of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, running salons in their Harlem apartment, overstuffed with the most interesting people.
Orson’s son Walter is our current-day narrator. As the book begins, Walter finds himself stuck in his aunts’ Collyer brothers-like apartment, trapped in extrachronological space. He has slipped out of time, and he is painfully in love with the wife of a powerful cult leader. Walter is writing a family history detailing the generational obsession with “the Accidents,” those holes in time.
“The Lost Time Accidents” is the first book I’ve read for review that required reading glasses so I am most sympathetic to a desire to dislodge from the forward progression of time. Who wants to go where we are heading? Not I. How then do we resist the hardening, narrowing effects of living a life that commonly moves in one direction? What forces are powerful enough to dislodge us from time’s march?
Wray presents a few.
First, there is literature. Proust is in the title, and C.S. Lewis’s forest pool wormholes are present. An entire section of “The Lost Time Accidents” is written by “Joan Didion.” Books exemplify time’s shifty nature. Sometimes, we devour books, sometimes we linger. And one always has the option of opening a text to any page: the French Revolution, the Han Dynasty, 3056.
Film allows a slippery time, too. Orson, like L. Ron Hubbard, finds his science fiction developed into a movie and springboard for a new religion.
Love is also presented as a place where time speeds up, stands still or stops forever, particularly the brokenhearted kind of love that traps a heart back in that moment when the girl you loved still loved you.
Then there is the involuntary time travel of mental illness.
W.G. Sebald writes, “The last remnants memory destroys.” Memory is not a preserver, but a destroyer, or, in Wray’s telling, memory is the mutator of the present. Our totally flawed but adorable attempts to write things down, to stop time, become the mirror showing how variable time and memory can be, how totally relative.
Enter Einstein, a man so despised by Ottokar’s descendants that he is referred to only as “the patent clerk.” Other historical figures march through the text as well: Wittgenstein, Tesla and Oppenheimer signal the role of accident, failure and fiction in creating history. How will time mutate their legacies? Are they extrachronological, waiting for us in a room somewhere? Who is not being remembered? And how will our vision of these men shift in years to come?
An unavoidable comparison to Wray’s work can be found in Audrey Niffenegger’s excellent 2003 novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife.” Both books share an idea of time travel as damaging, genetic and even possibly contagious. While Niffenegger’s book unpacks the human toll time travel extracts on a family, Wray’s story is more philosophic than cathartic. It is structured like Enzie and Gentian’s heaving hoard, the Archive of Accidents. “Every cubic inch of this apartment is taken up by shoe boxes, newspapers, Styrofoam peanuts, cinder blocks, dressmaker’s dummies, Game Boys, PA systems, dollhouses, Harlequin romances, collectible plates, chandeliers, sawhorses, carburetors, bicycles, almanacs, humidors, assault rifles, fainting couches, chalkboards, VHS players, Betamax players, laser disc players, Frisbees, ziggurats of balding tennis balls, half a century’s worth of Popular Mechanics, Omni, The Wall Street Journal, Amazing Stories, Scientific American, Barely Legal, Juggs, Modern Internment Magazine, mail-order catalogs, college yearbooks, high school yearbooks, product manuals for discontinued products, and every other sort of flotsam you can think of. Not to mention clocks.”
Perhaps time is not neat. Everything is here in “The Lost Time Accidents”: science, religion, family, history, sexism, literature, cinema, World War II, pickles and pulps. And seeded among the cycles and mutations is the essence of relativity: Here’s the world in entirety. What will you make of it?
Samantha Hunt is the author, most recently, of “Mr. Splitfoot.”
By John Wray
Farrar Straus Giroux. 491 pp. $27