Ever since the publication of his extraordinary debut novel, "The Right Hand of Sleep," John Wray has somehow eluded the swooning readership of other major American fiction writers, such as Michael Chabon or Junot Diaz. Like them, though, his work exudes a blend of humor and pathos, and he is ingeniously adept at capturing the strangeness of modern life.
Wray's fascination with strangeness continues with his fourth novel, "The Lost Time Accidents." Wray circles back to the World War II-era Austria of his first novel, but this time with a multigenerational saga that centers on a mysterious note. That note is described by the narrator, Waldemar "Waldy" Tolliver, who has been "excused from time."
Waldy's great-grandfather Ottokar Toula — a pickler by trade — claimed to have discovered the secret of time travel, but in a rush to get the theory down on paper, he is struck dead on a summer day in 1903 in a Daimler accident while returning home from a fling with the butcher's wife. His note, which "promised to shake the world to its foundations," remains half-formed.
His sons share his penchant for science. Waldemar, the younger, has a "straight-backed way of propelling himself through the world." Kaspar, on the other hand, is "dark, quiet" and has a "good-natured suspiciousness of the emigrant he would one day become."
They move from the small town of Znojmo to Vienna to attend the university. Waldemar takes a dark turn and grows obsessed with unlocking the secret his father tried to capture, eventually getting involved with the Nazis and performing twisted experiments on prisoners of death camps.
The story oscillates between this family narrative and Waldy's love letter to a mysterious Mrs. Haven. Waldy's great-aunts, Gentian and Enzian, become eccentric recluses after moving to New York City, buried under hoarded treasures in their Harlem apartment.
Waldy's father, Orson, author of pseudo-pornographic sci-fi novels, has a coronary at a showing of one of his books-turned-movie. Eventually, the two threads intertwine. In Waldy's personal addresses to Mrs. Haven, Wray slows time to explore Waldy's mysterious bodily purgatory and quickens time in the family narrative with loads of summary, historical anecdote and abounding references to cultural and scientific totems.
On the sentence level, the book is absolutely delightful. Quick-swipe descriptors of characters carry the sometimes exaggerative flair of Dickens. Waldy's musings throw the book into philosophical relief and keep it from teetering on too comical for its own good.
"The Lost Time Accidents" crackles with exquisite impressions of eras long gone and close to home and is so immersive that it's sometimes difficult to pull yourself back to the real world.
Josh Cook's writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Iowa Review, the Millions and elsewhere. He lives in St. Paul.