The Lost Time Accidents

The Lost Time Accidents

by John Wray


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The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray

In his ambitious and fiercely inventive new novel, The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray takes us from turn-of-the-century Viennese salons buzzing with rumors about Einstein's radical new theory to the death camps of World War Two, from the golden age of postwar pulp science fiction to a startling discovery in a Manhattan apartment packed to the ceiling with artifacts of modern life.

Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar 'Waldy' Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back-a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather's fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself.

Part madcap adventure, part harrowing family drama, part scientific mystery--and never less than wildly entertaining--The Lost Time Accidents is a bold and epic saga set against the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374281137
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 02/09/2016
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

John Wray is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, Lowboy, The Right Hand of Sleep, and Canaan's Tongue. He was named one of Granta's Best of Young American Novelists in 2007. The recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, he lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Lost Time Accidents

By John Wray

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2016 John Wray
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4452-6


ON JUNE 12, 1903, two hours and forty-five minutes before being killed by a virtually stationary motorcar, my great-grandfather made a discovery that promised to shake the world to its foundations. Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, father of two, amateur physicist, pickler by trade, had spent the morning in his laboratory — a converted brining room directly beneath the Hauptplatz of Znojmo, Moravia, the gherkin capital of the Habsburg Empire — and was about to lock up for the afternoon, when something about the arrangement of objects on a workbench caught his eye. According to his notes, he spent the better part of a quarter hour perfectly motionless, his right hand still cradling his keys, staring over his left shoulder at the "spatial dynamics" between a crucible, a brining jar, and a slowly desiccating winter pear.

A jarring, insistent noise which he eventually identified as the jangling of his key ring brought him out of his bedazzlement, and he approached the workbench with a trembling step. By the time he'd cleared a space on his perennially cluttered desk, pinched his pince-nez into place, and dug his notebook out from under a heap of cherry pits, the first crude attempt at a theory was already coalescing in his brain. He lowered himself to the bench, taking great care not to tip it over, and in less than an hour wrote the entry — seven pages of tilting courant script — that would trouble the dreams of his descendants for the next one hundred years.

I couldn't possibly know this, Mrs. Haven — not all of it — but I hope you'll indulge me a little. Ottokar's notes, the sole source I have for this scene, are as dry as pencil shavings. The only means I've got to bring this primal scene to life, to keep you here beside me — if only in potentia — is the license I've given myself to speculate. Imagination is a form of time travel, after all, however bumbling and incomplete. And every history is an act of subterfuge.

The town my great-grandfather lived and died in — Znaim to the Germanic ruling class, Znojmo to the Czechs — was a pretty imperial backwater, prosperous and unpretentious, known for its views of the Dyje River, its pickling mills, and not a thing besides. A postcard from the year of Ottokar's death combines these twin distinctions into a single tidy package: entitled "A Visit to Znaim," the postcard depicts a portly businessman in a bowler hat, happily suspended in midair above the Dyje, with the town square glowing rosily in the background. Pickles peek out of his pockets, and he brandishes a brining brush in his right hand, like a riding crop; his flight seems to have been made possible by the gargantuan, midnight-green, unapologetically phallic gherkin that he straddles like some suicidal gaucho. A poem at the bottom left-hand corner does nothing whatsoever to explain matters, though it does strike me as pertinent to my great-grandfather's brief, quixotic life:

A Gherkin from the land of Znaim
Is mightier than the Hand of Time;
Its savory Brine, at first so sour
Grows sweeter with each Passing Hour.

Znojmo's only other claim to a place in history, oddly enough, is even more closely aligned with poor Ottokar's fate. From 1716 until 1719 the town was home to Václav Prokop Divis, an otherwise unassuming Catholic priest who had the spectacularly bad luck of inventing the lightning rod at the same time as Benjamin Franklin. Divis died a pauper's death in a Moravian monastery, forgotten by the scientific world; Franklin got his fat face on the hundred-dollar bill. There's a lesson in that — about the disadvantages of being Czech, if nothing else — but my great-grandfather opted to ignore it.

By his own account, Ottokar was six foot four, 183 pounds, and "of forty-nine years' duration" at the time of his demise. He'd have stood out wherever he lived, most likely, on account of his great height and his slew of eccentricities; but in sleepy, unassuming Znojmo he was practically a figure of legend. He wore the same woolen overcoat all the year round, and was known to describe it as a "musical instrument," for no reason the townsfolk could discern. His iron-gray beard — which, in spite of his ardent Catholicism, demands to be described as Talmudic — was a thing of wonder to the local children, who tagged after him at a respectful distance, waiting for the instant when he'd stop short, glance back at them darkly, and mutter a rumbling "Saint Augustine protect you, little foxes," before passing out the caramel drops he carried in his pockets. A key ingredient in Ottokar's celebrity was his extravagant sweet tooth, and his claim — always made with the greatest solemnity — that he'd never eaten a pickle in his life.

Oddities notwithstanding, my great-grandfather was a gentleman of what was even then referred to as "the old school," equally devoted to his family, his mistress and his Kaiser. In spite of his matter-of-fact embrace of the newest pickling and storage technologies, his distrust of what he referred to as "newfangledhood" — and especially of its totem animal, the horseless carriage — was his overriding passion. He was fond of taking strolls in the evenings, usually in the company of his wife and two sons, Waldemar and Kaspar, and returning the greetings of his neighbors with a dignified tip of his homburg. On those still-infrequent occasions when a motorcar passed, he never failed to step squarely into its wake, oblivious to the dust devils whirling around him, and to bellow "Combust!" in the voice of Jehovah. (The fact that combustion was, in fact, the very thing that made motorcars possible was an irony no one was brave enough to call to his attention.) Ottokar was a man well aware of his place in the world; a man who took his influence for granted, no differently than his cherished Kaiser did.

Unbeknownst to my great-grandfather, however, both he and his Kaiser were approaching the ends of their terms.

* * *

According to the testimony of the last person known to have spoken with him before the accident, Ottokar was in a state of almost saintly exaltation during his final hours. The witness in question was one Marta Svoboda, the knödel-faced spouse of the town's leading butcher, with whom my great-grandfather had maintained a clandestine friendship since the middle of his twenty-second year. A specialty of Svoboda's shop was Fenchelwurst — pork sausage with fennel — and Ottokar was in the habit of calling on her each weekday at a quarter past twelve, just after the shop had closed for midday, to pick up the tidy wax-paper package, tied with red butcher's twine, that was awaiting him there like an anniversary present. (Where the man of the house spent his lunch hour, Mrs. Haven, I have no idea; perhaps he had a valentinka of his own.) For the whole of his adult duration, my great-grandfather's days followed an inflexible schedule, divided with perfect symmetry between mornings in his laboratory and afternoons devoted to the gherkin trade. The intervening hour, however, was reserved for a game of tarock with his kleine Martalein, who was — to judge by the only photograph I've seen — anything but klein, but whose fennel sausage, coincidentally or not, was reputedly the manna of the gods.

My great-grandfather showed up earlier than usual on that cataclysmic morning, dabbing at his forehead — although it was perfectly dry — with a filthy gray rag from his workshop. Marta bustled him at once to the enormous settee in her bedroom and insisted he remove his shoes and socks. Ottokar indulged her good-naturedly, protesting that he was in excellent health, that he'd never felt more vigorous, but allowing her to have her way, as always. (It's an odd thing, Mrs. Haven: although the thought of my parents' lovemaking turns my stomach, I don't feel the slightest resistance to picturing my great-grandfather and his mistress fornicating like love-struck bonobos. On this particular day, given his condition, I imagine the butcher's wife straddling him like a cyclist, leaving her apron on in case of interruption, her ample body driving his hips into the upholstery and causing the French enamel of the settee's frame to crack like the shell of an overboiled egg. These were his last earthly moments, and I like to think he made the most of them.)

At some point, Ottokar dug his left hand into a pocket of his coat, pulled out some — but not all; this is very important — of the hastily scribbled notes he'd made while sitting on his workbench, and arranged them in a row across the table. He confessed to feeling slightly feverish, and allowed Frau Svoboda to apply a compress to his brow. At five minutes to one, with the freakishly precise awareness of the hour that has always distinguished the men of my family, he sat up and announced that he had to be off. He seemed refreshed by the respite, and his forehead felt cooler, but his eyes shone with a fervor that took Marta quite aback. She made no attempt to stop him when he teetered to his feet and left the house.

It was just past 13:00 CET, the hour of rest in every cranny of that narcoleptic empire, and by all accounts a muggy afternoon. By the time the clock on the Radnicní tower struck a quarter past, Ottokar was crossing Obroková Street with his hands clasped behind him, taking long, abstracted steps, staring down at the freshly cobbled street and nodding to himself in quiet triumph. At the same instant, Hildebrand Bachling, a dealer in jewelry and pocket watches from Vienna, was making a leisurely circuit of Masarykovo Square, affording the public as much time as possible to admire his fifteen-horsepower Daimler. The precise sequence of events is impossible to reconstruct, though half a dozen Toulas have tried: most likely Herr Bachling was momentarily distracted — by the smile of a fräulein? by the smell of fresh hops? — and failed to notice the man drifting into his course.

* * *

Wealth is famously insecure, Mrs. Haven, and even the greatest art is shackled to its culture and its age; a scientific breakthrough, by contrast, is timeless. A great theory can be amended, like Galileo's planetary system; improved on, like Darwin's principle of natural selection; even ultimately discarded, like Newton's postulation of absolute time; once it's been metabolized, however — once it's been passed through the collective intestines, and added to the socioconceptual chain — it can vanish only with the death of human knowledge. My great-grandfather had just made a discovery that promised to bring him not merely fortune and fame — and even, in some quarters, infamy — but immortality. This intoxicating fact must have colored his thoughts as he made his way homeward, reviewing that morning's calculations like a magpie sorting bits of bottle glass. He barely recognized his neighbors, returned nobody's greeting, perceived nothing but the cobbles at his feet. The clatter of the Daimler's engine was thoroughly drowned out by the buzzing of his brain.

What happened next was attested to by everybody on the square that day. Bachling took sudden notice of the man in his path — "He popped up out of nowhere," he said at his deposition — "out of the air itself" — and clawed frantically at the Daimler's manual brake; Ottokar paid no mind to his impending end until its grille made gentle contact with his paunch. His coat seemed to drape itself over the hood of the Daimler, as if no human body were inside it, and by the time he hit the cobbles he was in his shirtsleeves. Bachling opened his mouth in a coquettish O of disbelief, extending his right arm over the windshield in an absurd attempt to shunt aside his victim; a stack of loose papers pirouetted skyward with no more urgency or fuss than the Daimler took to pass over the obstruction. The papers came to rest in the middle of the street — in perfect order, as I picture it — but no one present took the slightest notice.

No one except a single passerby.

Monday, 08:47 EST

Of the many mysteries of my situation, Mrs. Haven, the most brain-curdling isn't the question of time, but — for want of a better expression — the question of space. My recollection of events since our parting is patchy at best, a shadowy pudding of fuddled impressions, and the days and hours leading up to this limbo seem to have been erased altogether. I regained consciousness sweatily, fuzzily, as if surfacing from an afternoon nap beside some muddy semitropical lagoon, and I still haven't snapped out of it completely. What force and/or agency deposited me here? Why this place, of all places? Who excavated this cramped little burrow for me, set up this table and armchair, laid out this pen and ream of acid-free paper, and drank half of this bottle of nearly undrinkable beer?

As if to smooth my way further, a dozen or so books jut out of the mess within reach of this armchair, each one of them related to my work: Saint Augustine's Confessions, Kubler's The Shape of Time, a pocket biography of Einstein, and The Order of the Death's Head: The Story of Hitler's SS by a lurid little German named Heinz Höhne, to name just a few. This room was once my aunts' library, as I've said, but the coincidence is a little hard to credit. I can't help but suspect — like the stiff, defensive Protestants who raised you — that some Intelligence contrived to place me here.

I took my first stab at writing the history of my family when I was still in college, and that manuscript — "Toula-Silbermann-Tolliver: A Narrative Genealogy" — lies close by as well, in the crumpled manila envelope, packed with Tolliver lore, that was the last thing my aunts ever gave me. It's a ponderous slog, a painstaking patchwork of "primary" texts — I was a history major at the time — and reading it now, I find its fusty, deliberate tone grotesquely out of keeping with a family for whom "objectivity" has always been an alien (if not downright extraterrestrial) concept. In other words, Mrs. Haven, it's an undercooked, flavorless porridge of facts, the opposite of what I'm after here. You've never read a work of history in your life. 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 beside your bed. I'll have to treat my duration as a mystery and a sci-fi potboiler combined — which shouldn't be too hard to do at all.

Not to say these books won't come in handy, Mrs. Haven. The Kubler, for instance — an elegant art history tract, with a pretty two-tone cover that I think you would have liked — practically reads like an abstract of my family's travails. Here's a passage from page 17:

Our signals from the past are very weak, and our means for recovering their meaning are still most imperfect. The beginnings are much hazier than the endings, where at least the catastrophic action of external events can be determined. Yet at every moment the fabric is being undone and a new one is woven to replace the old, while from time to time the whole pattern shakes and quivers, settling into new shapes and figures.

Ottokar's death, both as an ending and as a beginning, might have been dreamed up expressly to prove Kubler's point. His ending was hazy enough, witnessed though it was by half the town of Znojmo; but the questions raised by his death led into a swamp in which first his children, then his grandchildren, and finally even his great-grandchildren lost themselves beyond hope of recovery. In spite of embracing science — and pseudoscience, and science fiction (and even, in one case, out-and-out humbuggery) — as our family religion, we Tollivers have always been a backward-looking bunch, and we've paid a fearsome price for our nostalgia. Like an unconfirmed rumor, or a libelous book, or a golem, or a flesh-eating zombie — never fully alive and therefore unkillable — Ottokar's discovery shadowed each of us from the cradle to the tomb.

I was once informed by a tour guide, on a high school trip to Scotland, that any self-respecting clan should have at least one ancient curse; and even then, at the age of not-quite-fifteen, the Lost Time Accidents sprang to mind at once. I've asked myself countless times how we might have turned out if my great- grandfather had stepped in front of that Daimler even one day earlier, only to realize, time and again, that I might as well ask what would have happened if he'd never been conceived. Time may be as subject to spin as everything else in the universe, Mrs. Haven, but the lines of cause and effect are no less evident for being curved. If the Tollivers had a crest, it would be the colors of pickling brine and tattered notebook paper, twisted together into a Möbius strip, rampant against a background of jet-black, ruthless, interstellar space.


Excerpted from The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray. Copyright © 2016 John Wray. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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