The Short Version: Waldemar Tolliver has become not so much unstuck in time as excused from it. He finds himself in his aunts’ old apartment, writing out the story not just of how he came to be here but of his family and their curse/burden/quest: to solve the Lost Time Accidents and master time itself.
The Review: I, supposedly, am in the midst of doing a bonus Ten-Year-Catch-Up of Kurt Vonnegut – but I’ve been oddly out of sync with ol’ Kurt of late, not particularly wanting his style or humor in the days post-election. So imagine my surprise when, upon diving into John Wray’s excellent The Lost Time Accidents, I discovered that I was reading perhaps the closest thing to a Vonnegut novel that anybody has written since Kurt died.
It takes a moment to get one’s bearings in this novel: who is the Mrs. Haven to whom our narrator is recounting this tale? For that matter, who is our narrator and what does it mean to’ve been excused from time? These questions are not answered immediately and instead we are flung back into the 1800s, when our narrator’s great-grandfather is struck dead by a barely moving car. The amount of humor you might be able to find in such circumstances yourself will likely determine how well you take to Wray’s particular blend of earnestness and silliness.
What struck me most about this novel, though, was how truly engrossing it was. It reminded me, in this way, of a novel like The Art of Fielding: hefty but not doorstop-y, beautifully written but not over-crafted, immediately engaging every time you pick it up but not so urgent a read that you can’t take a break now and again. I found it to be one of the most pleasing reads I’ve had in quite a while, because it read for me like everything a Good Novel ought to be. Wray is a terrific writer and he crafts a story that works on several levels: it feels like the story that Waldy is telling us but it also shifts a bit to feel like each separate story (the memories, as it were, or the chapters of the book Waldy is writing – which are different from the more diaristic excerpts) is, well, separate. I’m not sure I can explain it better than that except to say that I was thoroughly entertained throughout.
I was also impressed by Wray’s grappling with – and making palatable for mass audiences – intense concepts of physics and space-time. There’s some great mileage gotten out of the idea that the Tolliver (or Toula, as they were first known) family is like the Tesla or Leibniz to Einstein’s Edison or Newton – except that they, not unlike those other slightly crackpotty individuals, took the idea in a different direction. Relativity, the fundamental concept on which so much of our physics is grounded (and what makes so much of science-fiction so fictional), is brought into question here but in ways that don’t feel like a direct questioning of the concept. Instead, the speculative seeps into the novel almost without the reader’s noticing (despite, of course, the initial obvious trappings and opening gambits). We become as fascinated by the possibility of ‘excusing oneself from time’ as Waldy and his family, wondering what it could or does mean – and whether or not any of it is real at all.
Wray also pulls off a tremendous feat in delivering an unfamiliar angle on a Holocaust narrative. The Toulas are there in the early days of the Anschluss and while Waldy’s grandfather leaves for America, his grand-uncle and namesake sticks around. Not only that, he becomes a part of the Reich and operates a concentration camp… where he tortures inmates in the hopes of cracking the code of jumping out of time. Suddenly, Waldy’s narrative is about much more than grappling with his family’s “curse”: we understand potentially what that curse actually is and what it might mean. It’s altogether rare, at least in my reading, to find a story about several-generations-removed grappling with the horrors of the Reich not as a victim but as one whose family was part of the oppression. Coupled with The Sirens of Titan-esque time travel, it was unlike anything else I’ve ever really read.
Much is made of the obvious pastiches in Wray’s novel – the pitch-perfect Joan Didion essay, the excerpts of the very bad pulp sci-fi Waldy’s father wrote – but Wray pulls off less-obvious pastiches as well. Waldy and Mrs. Haven’s affair, for example, encompasses your standard WMFUN but it also has shades of noir and mystery, hints of the kinds of elliptical romances that win Booker Prizes, and a bit of Manson-esque cult horror. Or, when it isn’t Manson, it’s Hubbardian; the similarities between Mr. Haven and David Miscaviage are chill-inducing at times. Wray has done that thing here where an author takes all of their many influences and manages to show them all on the page while simultaneously being true to their own voice. It’s a harder thing to do than it sounds, but when it is done well, it absolutely hums. And this novel, oh does it hum indeed.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. One of the great joys of my reading year, actually: it’s a perfectly constructed novel, one that rewards taking your time with it and allowing the size and scope to hit you as they will. It takes a moment to push through the barrier in the beginning, I’ll admit – but once you’re in, it’s a delightful ride. Wray brings speculative influences together with real-world politics (both global and familial) and honest highbrow literature to create something that I think Kurt Vonnegut would’ve liked to read. In a time when we need writers who have a little twinkle in their eye and who are capable of delivering works that are complex without being confusing, deeply emotional without being manipulative, and easy-reading without being breezy, I’m glad we have someone like John Wray. I’d get lost in this book again without much of a qualm.