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29 August 2016

Stop all the clocks: why John Wray is somewhere between Thomas Pynchon and David Mitchell

Wray's new novel explores our esoteric obsession with time.

By randy boyagoda

And you thought that Gregor Samsa had it bad, waking up one morning to discover that he’d become a bug! At the beginning of John Wray’s novel The Lost Time Accidents, its narrator observes, “This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time.”

Waldemar “Waldy” Tolliver confides this to his former paramour Mrs Haven in the first of a series of searching and meditative letters that he sends her from amid 
the physical and psychic detritus of his eccentric aunts’ apartment in New York. What follows is Waldy’s highly abstract ­effort to make sense of how and why he has found himself in this chronologically vexing predicament.

The Lost Time Accidents spans four generations, two continents, several major historical and cultural events and multiple intersecting theoretical temporal dimensions that unspool within and beyond more than a century of conventional time. All of this, taken together, forms an extended riff on St Augustine’s meditation in The Confessions, “What, then, is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not.”

Wray quotes these lines repeatedly, as a running reminder of the struggles of Waldy’s family to make sense of time, beginning with his great-grandfather Ottokar, an “amateur physicist, pickler by trade”. Ottokar dies in a car accident in Moravia in 1903, shortly after writing “seven pages of tilting courant script . . . that would trouble the dreams of his descendants for the next one hundred years”. This script concerns a stunning insight into the nature of time and the existence of a phenomenon called “the Lost Time Accidents”.

The papers disappear and members of Waldy’s family take up their ancestor’s esoteric obsessions with time, sometimes in concert, and often at odds. They do so in settings that include pre-Second World War Vienna, a concentration camp in Nazi-ruled Austria and mid-century Buffalo, New York, which was then so thriving that it was “Chicago’s closest rival as the Paris of the Plains”, a city where “a belt of steel plants on the city’s south side (if the wind was right) made for hyperbolic, lilac-tinted sunsets” and the people were full of “fierce, bulldoggish confidence”. For recently arrived European immigrants such as Waldy’s family members, “A greater contrast to Vienna was hard to imagine.”

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The most frequent and important setting in the novel, however, is the tenement apartment of Waldy’s aunts in New York City, initially a place of much bohemian intellectual ferment and decadence that, from the 1960s onwards, becomes ever weirder and overstuffed, and finally contains the letter-writing Waldy. After his aunts die, he gets messily involved in the machinations of a cultish new religion founded on “chrononavigation”, or time travel, the possibilities of which, its adherents believe, are mystically disclosed in the novels of Waldy’s father, Orson.

That covers the basic plot, or at least most of it. Wray moves across this sprawling and brazenly convoluted material in a comparatively staid and clear way, with a recurring three-part narrative structure made up of Waldy’s letters to Mrs Haven, re-creations of the events in his life that led to his confinement in his aunts’ apartment, and the retelling of his family history and most important events of the 20th century. There are cameo appearances by the likes of Einstein, Wittgenstein, J Robert Oppenheimer, Joan Didion and others. At the novel’s climax, Waldy clumsily moves through Mitteleuropa in search of his great-grandfather’s writings, in the hope of both understanding and freeing himself from the burdens of family and time.

The overall effect of Wray’s considerable effort falls somewhere between Thomas Pynchon and David Mitchell. The material is daunting and entertaining, and it also frequently occasions scepticism about just how seriously we should take all of this. Should the novel be prized and contended with as serious literary work, or easily consumed as inspired self-indulgence?

At the best moments, however – such as when a congenitally abstracting theoretical physicist finally forgets about the mystery of the Lost Time Accidents for a moment upon seeing his newborn daughters for the first time, their faces “crimped and wrinkled like a pair of angry fists” – you’re not so worried about whether all of this makes sense or not. That is because Wray has made it possible, amid all of the overtly learned family drama, to perceive more readily a finer and firmer human feeling that courses through this wingding tick-tock of a brainy new book. 

Randy Boyagoda’s most recent novel is “Beggar’s Feast” (Penguin)

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray is published by Canongate (512pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 24 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser