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by John Wray

Pub Date: Feb. 9th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-374-28113-7
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A sprawling, heady tale of time travel with detours into alternative religion, pulp science fiction, the Holocaust, and much, much—much—more.

The fourth novel by Wray (Lowboy, 2009, etc.) is narrated by Waldemar “Waldy” Tolliver, whom we first meet in a Harlem apartment that he claims isn’t obeying the typical forward movement of time. That gives him the opportunity to write this book, addressed to a former lover, about how time has long been the family business: his great-grandfather claimed to have sorted out time travel but was killed before he could make his findings known. His two sons continued his investigations, one by experimenting on the occupants of a Nazi death camp; Waldy’s father in turn adapted their convoluted efforts into a popular 1960s flower-power sci-fi novel, which inspired a Scientology-esque religion that’s entangled the narrator. And “entangled” is the operative word here. Wray aspires to a blend of Michael Chabon’s pop-culture–soaked flights of fancy and Jonathan Lethem’s humid braininess, and sometimes it clicks: the porn-pulp oeuvre of Waldy’s father, and the way it became a hippie totem à la On the Road or Siddhartha, has life and humor, and he crafts an entertaining portrait of his great aunts, occupants of that Harlem apartment so cluttered they evoke the Collyer brothers and who in their heyday were admired for their quirky appreciation of time travel. (Wray cannily ventriloquizes a Joan Didion article on the pair.) But juggling all this family history along with the mechanics of history and Einstein makes this a more plodding novel than it ought to be, especially given Wray’s talents and ambition. The story “involves the Gestapo, and the war, and the speed of light, and a card game no one plays anymore,” as Waldy puts it, but its moving parts mesh stiffly.

An omnium-gatherum of 20th-century physics and spirituality that ultimately gathers too much.