What are ‘lost time accidents’, apart from something on building-site signs announcing hours lost to worker injuries? In this novel by the Austrian-American John Wray, the accidents represent time travel, or one family’s century-long, multi-generation, trans-Atlantic obsession and dark joke. ‘Time is our shared disorder,’ says the narrator’s aunt.
Waldy Tolliver is that narrator, anxious and infatuated and trapped in a time-pocket from which he lobs the family history in long passages to Mrs Haven, his recent lover. His father Orson is a science fiction writer whose own father, Kaspar, fled occupied Europe for Buffalo, New York. Kaspar’s twin Waldemar remained upwardly mobile in Vienna as, first, an SS interrogator then a concentration-camp commandant conducting murderous scientific experiments on the problem of time. But the disorder goes back one more generation, to their father, a Moravian gherkin manufacturer who began the family project while in Bern, while the family nemesis known as the ‘Patent Clerk’, Albert Einstein, began dabbling in the rival theory of relativity.
Here is a sprawling, heavy-going novel spanning the length of a dark 20th century and contrasting old Europe with postwar, vital America. Before embarking on these 500 pages, though, a reader should ask himself whether he is interested in the subject of time travel. Here, it is never just ‘time travel’ — but prolonged treatments of physics and cosmology and deliberately addled philosophical plunges into the nature of time.
Waldy, who sees the ‘timestream’ first ‘as a flickering tunnel we all move through together, like passengers on a fairground logjam ride’, then later ‘as a magical streetcar of sorts, one that could move either forward or back’, is interesting mainly for the spectacle he makes of himself as a nervous wreck veering towards the exhaustion from which one doesn’t recover. ‘I’ve got to get my family behind me,’ he pleads with Mrs Haven. ‘I want the past to be past: to stop spinning in circles, to stop sucking me in, to let me make my own goddamn decisions.’
Here, grand gestures come in grand style, often with wit. But Wray takes risks when he plays with the Holocaust; how glib can it seem to have an atrocious war criminal time-travelling forward and backward to the point where he’s lying in bed in New York as your interlocutor and guide? His victims have been burned and put into the earth, but the evil maestro might just have made ‘a man-sized hole in time, and wriggled through it’.
At some point it’s reasonable to ask how many of Wray’s time puzzles a reader must plough through for the sake of a handle on his story. With every character stretched beyond the skin of people we might recognise, in a known world we actually inhabit, we lose the small feeling we might have had for them. Lucky for us that, in time’s battle, Einstein won and not Toula.