Faren Miller reviews John Wray

The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 978-0-374-28113-7, $27.00, 496pp, hc) February 2016.

It’s probably not coincidence (or synchronicity) that John Wray’s substantial, genre-busting novel The Lost Time Accidents shares a notion with Marcel Proust’s even more massive Remembrance of Things Past, whose French title Á La Recherche Du Temps Perdu could also be rendered into English as ‘‘In Search of Lost Time’’.

Amid the orbits of lives – the varying stages and perceptions of one’s own, of others encountered in the welter of experience, and fundamental family ties – a quest to trace origins and recover old sensations (or reinvent them) takes place within a still point at the center of a subjective storm. At the beginning and ending of The Lost Time Accidents, narrator ‘‘Waldy’’ Tolliver invokes this bizarre site in a repeated passage: ‘‘Time moves freely around me, gurgling like a whirlpool, fluxing like a quantum field, spinning like a galaxy around its focal hub – at the hub, however, everything is quiet.’’ That’s not altogether different from Proust’s notion of ‘‘the infinitely unrolling past which I had been unconsciously carrying within me’’: time ‘‘incarnate,’’ accessible ‘‘by descending more deeply within myself.’’

Collectively, the family that began in Moravia (now Czechoslovakia) under the name of ‘‘Toula’’ near the end of the Habsburg Empire – becoming ‘‘Tolliver’’ when Waldy’s grandfather emigrated to America – can’t be described in the ‘‘undercooked, flavorless porridge of facts’’ that ruined his first attempt at writing their history. Now that he’s trapped (along with an armchair, a card table, pen and paper, and a few relevant books) in the endless moment near the center of the whirlpool, he resolves to try again: addressing his new efforts to ‘‘Mrs. Haven’’ (an ex-lover who went back to her husband), and declaring, ‘‘To bring the past alive for you, I’m going to have to approach it as a sort of waking dream, or as one of those checkout counter whodunits you keep stacked by your bed.’’

From this perspective, individuals in a lineage haunted and perplexed by the nature of time serve as something like avatars for the mingled weirdness and monstrosity of the 20th century. Great-grandfather, an amateur scientist with a lab in his Moravian pickle factory, seems to have grasped the concept of relativity just before his peculiar death in 1903. Waldy’s great uncle and namesake Waldemar explored darker occult notions in a Nazi death camp, while his grandfather fled to America with a feisty Jewish wife, and went on to study temporal flux as physics. Dad wrote lurid pulp Sci-Fi and founded the Church of Synchronicity (amid allusions to more serious SF that keep even these scenes from descending to sheer caricature).

Like Proust, Waldy pursues the past till time seems to flow backwards, but another century – of thought and feeling, life and death in a rapidly changing world – helps shape how he describes it:

Rivers flowed uphill and trees shrank to seedlings and the overheated earth began to cool…. Eggs returned to their chickens, bombs returned to their bombers, and effects flew home like bullets to their causes.

Crazy as it may seem, The Lost Time Accidents obliges us to acknowlege: this is our world as well.-

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