Waldy Tolliver wakes to find himself "excused from time" (excused, as if time were PE class or jury duty). It's 8:47 – it stays 8:47. "Time moves freely around me," he writes from the cramped apartment of his eccentric, dead twin aunts, "gurgling like a whirlpool, fluxing like a quantum field, spinning like a galaxy around its focal hub – at the hub, however, everything is quiet."
There, trapped in time and in a Manhattan brownstone filled with decades of debris, Waldy takes up a ream of paper laid out on the table and begins to write the history of his family, himself, and the obsession that runs from generation to generation of Tollivers like sickness: the belief that "time and space themselves are in transit, subject to a motion both pliable and absolute, and that man can influence said motion by an act of focused, virtuosic will."In other words: time travel.
From this snug Central Park singularity, he records his quest to find and kill his great-uncle — his namesake and the "Black Timekeeper of Czas" — who, Waldy believes, used time travel to escape the Russian troops razing the concentration camp where he had been performing experiments on prisoners.
Waldy addresses this chronicle to his lover, Mrs. Haven, whose husband is a follower of Synchronology, a cult derived from the sci-fi novels of Waldy's father, Orson, a gentler L. Ron Hubbard figure. Waldy's voice is garrulous and hypereducated, manic and mournful by turns. He will write, he says, not a dry family history but "one of those checkout counter whodunits ... a mystery and a scifi potboiler combined," in an early hint of the sprightly play with the limits of different genres that is one of the book's pleasures.
John Wray's novel put me in mind of an absurd meringue of a palace in Brighton, England, called the Royal Pavilion. It is a dreamy orientalist paradise, with rooms and rooms of demented and delirious design, minarets, domes, chandeliers the size of cars supported by tiger-sized sculptures of dragons. By rights, it should be too much. Too gaudy. But it's perfect in its own way. There is beauty in maximalism if the details are done right. The Lost Time Accidents, in its excess, its beauty and its strangeness, remind me of nothing so much as the Royal Pavilion, or maybe of an invention of my little brother's called "poogle cake," which was made by combining every ingredient in the refrigerator — savory, sweet, expired, all — and baking it for 20 minutes. The difference, of course, is that The Lost Time Accidents is a wonderful, delirious, layered confection, whereas poogle cake tasted like ketchup and eggshells.
It is a conga line of a novel, a full brass band of a novel, an epic: not only because of its scale — the Tolliver family curse spans generations and continents — but also because it samples wildly from other genres, and contains smaller universes within itself, studded like chocolate chips within the larger story.
One section is written as a Joan Didion essay, in perfect Didion-speak. Others are excerpts of Orson's pulpy sci-fi novels ("This principatrix, it is told, was the rarest of beauties: skin the color of subpolar frost, hair luminous as ore from a core-stratum vein"), one is a perfect parody of bloated book reviews (Orson's novel "demands to be interpreted as a ragged, desperate yawp of celebration ... America could do worse than lend an ear.")
The Lost Time Accidents is a feast, but not a glut, in part because its author leaves so much to the reader's deduction, both in terms of the book's central mystery and in the dense web of allusion and in-joke that decorates each page. There are references to sci-fi writers across the canon, to Shakespeare, to William Blake and St. Augustine and the Bible. You may notice that Czas, the imaginary concentration camp where Waldemar performed horrors, is the Polish word for time, or that a Greek epigraph of one of Orson's books, translated as "Time makes fools of us all," is nonsense Greek letters and isin fact a quotation from sci-fi writer E.T. Bell, but you may not, and he doesn't beat you over the head with it. These small gifts and misdirections abound, lending a satisfying unknowability to the story, a sense of not having quite cracked it.
For all the manic maximalism, at a certain point Wray raises the curtain and allows us to see his narrator as a man, alone in the apartment of his dead aunts, convinced he is being held prisoner, victim of a hurricane of family delusions. The book may involve "the Gestapo, and the war, and the speed of light, and a card game no one plays anymore," but it is really interested in simple emotional truths rather than complex scientific ones. You begin to wonder whether the family conviction that time is malleable is anything more than a coping mechanism for loss. If the past, as Waldy's grandfather puts it, is merely an island you have left behind, then everyone you have loved and lost is still alive.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.