I’m a sucker for novels which treat genres as a game and run rampant, laughing at the idea of easy classification. This is such a novel, a confident melding of science-fiction, an intergenerational family saga, physics, mystery, satire, history and even a classical form of tragedy. We’re dropped in at the deep end, meeting our narrator Waldemar Tolliver who’s engaged in writing a history of himself and his family in an unusual setting in terms of both space and time. The enigma of just what constitutes lost time accidents begins with Waldemar’s great grandfather and a note he leaves just prior to a fatal car accident. This note is the novel’s MacGuffin, inspiring the members of the family to a kind of century long collective madness and one which sets them up in direct opposition to a physicist known to them by the disparaging nickname of ‘the Patent Clerk’. The novel unfolds their opposition to Einstein’s theories at leisure, being careful for much of its length to leave it to the reader to decide whether it genuinely works in context of the novel’s world or whether it’s a delusion related by an unreliable narrator.
It’s this strange theory which allows the author to get at the issue at the novel’s heart; how we’re the physical and psychological product of our ancestors and the recipients of their hopes, fears and neuroses and what that means for us. The ultimate fate of our narrator indicates that, even if we might physically step outside that, we’re largely stuck with the weight their inheritance bestows upon us, unable to escape our family. Family ends up being destiny, determining our way. It’s something of a downbeat thought but one the novel powerfully realises, particularly with the last few lines which, if you’re paying attention, complete the tragedy and the theme of tragic circularity. It might be trying to make a grand statement that’s been made by other contemporary novelists but it wears that gravity of Trying To Say Something Profound lightly; wrapping it up with a comedy, tragedy and a host of interesting and entertaining characters. The events these characters go through are always unlikely but the fascinating kernel most of them have keeps things grounded – the weird aunts, the cult leader, the Nazi great-uncle and the unwilling L Ron Hubbard of a dad are all believable, convincingly motivated human beings who contrive to struggle fruitlessly in the web of their family’s mania. They’re rarely likeable as we can clearly see their faults (often through Waldemar’s eyes and even his narrative exposes his flaws) but Wray’s exceptional at understanding the way people are broken which makes them interesting and portraying that. Thought-provoking, absurdist, challenging and ladled with great lines understand that the impact of a good punchline derives in part from how the joke is told.
(STANDARD DISCLAIMER – The copy I read was an advance eBook provided gratis by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review).