The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

I was excited at the prospect of this novel. I loved the idea of a novel about time-travel in which a hero narrates the story of his family from outside the flow of chronological time.

Waldemar is exactly this kind of hero and even better his heroism involves a kind of active inactivity, stuck as he is, writing his family’s history in a place out of the flow of time, hoping to win back the affections of Mrs. Haven, to whom he addresses his history.

Waldemar is the end of a chain of sons and daughters grown mad on a legacy left by Waldemar’s great-grandfather, Ottokar Toula, an amateur physicist who claimed to have understood the nature of time just as Einstein published his theory of relativity, but who died on the day of his discovery of what he called time accidents. Waldemar takes it upon himself to solve this family obsession with time, to understand, explain and explore it.

His account takes us from Vienna, across Europe of the Second World War, and into America of the modern day. Waldemar’s namesake, his uncle, used a concentration camp to further his experiments into the time accidents (much of Waldemar’s history is about escaping, hating and coming to terms with Uncle Waldemar). His grandfather, Uncle Waldemar’s brother, emigrated to America to escape Nazi Europe and ended up running a successful watch making business and being baffled by his children: the twin girls who move to Manhattan and seek meaning in a seemingly haphazard collection of everyday items (I thought of Auster’s The New York Trilogy), and Waldemar’s father, Orson, a popular science fiction writer whose writings on time-travel engender the foundation of a cult religion.

Orson is a pleasing character (note how closely his name resembles that of Orson Scott Card) and we are treated to a fair bit of his writing. The one story that Waldemar’s mother forces him to read, ‘The Principatrix of Gnawledge’, could almost sum up the entire novel: a beautiful principatrix lives happily in her palace until one day she goes for a walk and meets an old crone who tells her she lives an ordinary life because she has ‘no thought for the Winter, and no influence over the Thermodynamic Arc’ (loc 6138) after which she proceeds to do nothing but think about both of these until it is she who walks out of the ruins of her palace and in turn offers the same words to a beautiful young principatrix.

I say it could sum up the novel because The Lost Time Accidents is all about malleable, cyclical concepts of time and how easily history repeats itself. All of this metaphysical contemplation is interesting, especially as standing outside of time and observing it is the mechanism for writing the novel itself. However, despite my interest and my admiration of the novel’s scope, the act of reading felt turgid, as if I were wading through The Lost Time Accidents. Like some of the characters within the novel, as I became a little lost and tired in and of the narrative, I began to feel time passing more slowly; it was as if an obsession with time was being forced upon me.

Ultimately, even when viewed as a love story in which Waldemar writes to regain Mrs. Haven’s dubious favours, the novel never really kicks me in the gut and out of my head. I admired The Lost Time Accidents, it provoked interesting avenues of thought, but it didn’t win my heart. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this story more if it had been Mrs. Haven who told it? Am I finding a pattern in which well-know American literary writers engage with genre fiction without quite pulling it off? 

Next week I’m reading the Hodder & Stoughton #readwithoutprejudice novel. I’m excited to find out what is inside as there is no title page or author’s name and no cover art. I’ll let you know!