Eric Weinberger

Time trials | 16 June 2016

John Wray's time-travel-filled novel may ask too much of its readers

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.

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