In some circles, a lost time accident is a goof up or problem that requires fixing before any progress can be made. It’s wasted time, essentially. In the Toula/Tolliver family, lost time accidents refer to the family’s quest to travel through the time-space continuum. John Wray’s demented tale of that family’s quest, The Lost Time Accidents, begins with the latest scion of the family reporting to his lover that he has found himself out of time. Where he is, it’s always Monday morning, at 8:47 AM. Since he has nothing better to do and has found a convenient supply of paper and a pen, he writes his family’s history, from the day in 1903 when his great-grandfather supposedly discovered the secret of time travel to the theory of relativity, Nazi “science,” science fiction, hoarding, and a cult.
It’s lucky for us that Waldemar Tolliver, the latest in the Toula/Tolliver line, was trained as a historian, however briefly. If the story had been left up to one of his other relatives—whacked out physicists, for the most part—The Lost Time Accidents would be even more bizarre than it already is. After a brief report on his location and status outside of time, Waldemar takes us back to the beginning, in a small town in Moravia that’s famous for its pickles. On the day that he died in a car accident, Ottokar Toula supposedly discovered the secret of time and time travel. He died with some of his notes missing. His sons, Kaspar and Waldemar, spend some time trying to work it out. Kaspar eventually gives it up for family and a homelife but Waldemar goes completely off the deep end.
Going beyond the bounds and ethics of science (and sanity) becomes a recurring theme in the family. No one in the family goes as far as the first Waldemar, but the rest of the family is deeply strange. Many of them think in schizophrenic ways, seeing meaning in patterns that isn’t there, having conversations with a cicada that only visits every seven years, weird coincidences, and on. Waldemar (the second one, our narrator) tends to give his relatives a fair hearing, in spite of their eccentricities and possible mental illnesses. I’m not sure if Waldemar suffers from his family’s thought patterns or if there really is a possibility that, in his universe, his family really is just on the cusp of a breakthrough.
Most of the Toula/Tolliver family search for the secret of “lost time” for no particular reason, just to see if they can, as far as we know. But for the last Waldemar, his desperate experiments in time travel add an emotional depth to the book that surprised me, given the mad scientist vibe of most of the first two-thirds of The Lost Time Accidents. Waldemar the Younger is the emotional center of this book; without him, this book loses a lot of its power. The Lost Time Accidents is the kind of science fiction I adore. Not only is it weird, but it asks questions about the way we see the world and speculate about what’s possible and why. In this case, Waldemar and his family are asking us to reconsider how we see time. Waldemar’s father writes a very poignant phrase about how we experience time:
We travel through time all our lives—into the future at the speed at which we age, and into the past each time we remember. There is only the brain, after all; however we chose to employ it, we have no other device…Our consciousness is all the time machine we need. (307*)
It’s shockingly profound considering that Orson Tolliver spent most of his career writing pornographic science fiction for a living. I do love a book that can bounce between the sublime and the ridiculous.
* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.