The Lost Time Accidents

John Wray

Seven years after Lowboy, John Wray is back with The Lost Time Accidents, a novel NPR has called “a wonderful, delirious, layered confection” and the LA Times has proclaimed “delightfully ridiculous, reminiscent of Michael Chabon at his madcap best.” Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, our hero Waldemar ‘Waldy’ Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the first chapter.

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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 potential—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.

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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.


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