Accidents of varying consequence and indignity befall the preternaturally pixilated clan stalked over four generations in John Wray’s propulsive tale of obsessive love and fractured physics, “The Lost Time Accidents.’’ One family member is run over by a Daimler that is barely moving at the moment of impact. Another is sent flying by a wayward bicyclist. Yet another suffers repeated collisions with the stacked detritus of hoarder aunts that bury him under avalanches of takeout trays, Sharper Image catalogs, and rolls of quilted lilac toilet paper.
The mishap that most aggrieves Wray’s focal character, however, is the accident of birth that has saddled him with an impossible name (Waldemar Gottfriedens Tolliver, anyone?) and the even harder-to-reconcile legacy of a family “divorced from consensus reality.” Surely, how would any of us fare in the double shadow of a novelist father whose pornographic science fiction inspired a paranoid cult religion and a great uncle who conducted tortuous medical experiments on concentration camp inmates?
The burden of family history has riddled Wray’s fiction since his formidable debut novel, “The Right Hand of Sleep,” whose protagonist, Oscar Voxlauer, is haunted by the spiritual demons that drove his composer father to suicide. Like Oscar, who deserted his post in the Austro-Hungarian army, characters in “The Lost Time Accidents” often express their alienation by bailing: from institutions, from convention, or, more brazenly, from time itself.
So it goes for Waldemar, a.k.a. Waldy, or Walter, as he is known to Mrs. Haven, a depressive femme-fatale-in-Manhattan-socialite’s-clothing he falls for after dropping out of college (and to whom Walter’s brooding, film-noir-ish narration is addressed). At the novel’s outset, Walter claims to be exempt from time as he lolls in the Harlem apartment of his wiggy late aunts, blissed out on lager and mooning over his inamorata. Walter and Mrs. Haven share more than a potent, if long unconsummated, animal attraction. The pop-up religion her husband invented (which bears more than passing resemblance to Scientology) lifted its tenets from the fictional phantasmagoria of Walter’s father, Orson Tolliver, via a career-blazing sci-fi novel that conceals within its layers of allegorical hooey the biographical threads of his wayward family of “failed physicists.”
The damn-the-torpedoes resolve with which Walter then unravels his dark family history, in tandem with his pursuit of Mrs. Haven, springs from the same obsessiveness that goosed Walter’s Moravian great-grandfather Ottokar Toula and successive generations of Toulas and Tollivers down a garden path after the Lost Time Accidents: a physics puzzle whose answer contains the potential for man to move through time. After Ottokar’s pioneering research into the elusive Accidents was cut short by that fatal close encounter with a Daimler, as Walter discovers, Ottokar’s sons Kaspar and Waldemar (Walter’s namesake) continued their father’s work amid the heady intellectual swirl of pre-Nazi Vienna, only to have their efforts upstaged by Albert Einstein.
Einstein’s game-changing theory of relativity proved traumatizing to the brothers Toula who, like superstitious actors who euphemize “Macbeth” as “the Scottish play,” referred to him dismissively as “the patent clerk.” That their nemesis was Jewish only enflamed the wounded pride of the anti-Semitic Waldemar, who, reinventing himself as the notorious “Black Timekeeper of Czas,” funneled his bitterness and scientific knowledge into ghoulish medical experiments at a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Kaspar, turning his back on the ascendant German menace, fled to America with his Jewish wife and cultivated a fortune manufacturing watches.
Mortified at the possibility that he has inherited the germs of Waldemar’s criminal pathology and Kaspar’s talent for denial, Walter vows to expunge himself of both. His mission gains unexpected traction when Waldemar, who purportedly perished in the war, suddenly turns up in the apartment. Could his nefarious great-uncle still be alive? Is it possible that Waldemar deployed the family’s scientific research to flee the camps through a hole in space-time? Or did he use the “exclusion bin,” the cockamamie time machine rigged up by one of the aunts in her apartment workshop?
This clock-confounding scenario, which plays fast and loose with the reader’s sense of transpiring time, provides an excuse for some impudently funny riffs on time-travel movies and the “sixteen-year-old fanboys in frosted jeans and Iron Maiden T-shirts” who drive their ticket sales. Wray also makes prankish sport of New York’s bygone literary salons (there is an entire counterfeit essay by a neophyte Joan Didion) and revels in demented characters and sinister physiognomy (“porridge-faced,” “goosenecked,” “walleyed”) with an esprit that suggests he himself has been time-machining to Weimar-era Berlin to draw inspiration from caricaturist George Grosz.
At times, the author’s belabored attempts at replicating the brain-freezing stylizations and vocabulary of kitschy science fiction become a drag on his otherwise fleet plotting. But his empathy for people with a finger’s grip on sanity galvanizes his tale with a liberating touch of crazy. Walter’s Einstein-phobic progenitors, holding fast to unpopular science, share an odd sort of kinship with the schizophrenic teenager obsessed with the threat of global warming in Wray’s 2009 novel “Lowboy.” Anyone who feels wrung out from decades of climate-change denial might appreciate the idea that if you spend too much time in the company of people divorced from consensus reality madness can be an appropriate response.
THE LOST TIME ACCIDENTS
By John Wray
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 491 pp., $27
Jan Stuart is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly implied that a concentration camp was run by Poland.