8.11.2013

The Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell

The Man in the Empty Suit
Sean Ferrell's The Man in the Empty Suit is a curious blend of science fiction and literary fiction. It has the premise of a science fiction novel: a nameless narrator invents time travel and uses the technology to meet up with himself for his birthday every year, among other things. But it also has the styling of a literary novel. Not much is explained on the science side. There's no world ending crisis. Instead, there's a mystery that's as existential as it is criminal.

Every 2071, on his birthday, the nameless time traveling narrator arrives at an abandoned hotel in a curiously broken New York. His younger self has set up the party. Other younger selves tend the bar. Older version of himself stand off in their corners, being annoyed by the antics of the younger self. But the 39-year-old version, our narrator, arrives at the party to realize that the 40-year-old version of himself is murdered. None of the older versions know exactly what happened. So it's up to him, the 39-year-old version, to figured out what happened. This is the kind of book that makes you want to have some graphing paper to help work out all the time lines. All the version of the narrator have their own nicknames, which goes a long way to helping keep track of who is when--but that seems to be the only bone the author is willing to throw.

The 39-year-old version, who has dubbed himself the Suit at some point in his history, has no choice but to figure out not only who killed/will kill him, but also how he managed to survive in order to grow older and come back to the party year after year. In The Man in the Empty Suit, Ferrell has taken the idea of the time travel paradox and run so far with it that I'm not sure which of the many multiverses this story is in. If it's in a multiverse at all.

As the Suit gets closer to his death or non-death, he starts to wonder about the rules he's set up and the way he's living his life. His older selves are doomed to making sure everything plays out the way it's always played out. His younger selves are doomed to keep making the same mistakes. Every version of himself worries what will happen to the future if even the smallest thing changes. So the Suit grows terrified when he realizes that on top of his immanent death/escape, he's become untethered from his past and present. For the first time since he was 18, our narrator has no idea what's going to happen.

A lot of other readers appeared to be disappointed with this book, judging by the rankings and reviews on GoodReads. But I wasn't at all disappointed in this book. The premise leads you to think that this book is a science fiction thriller. That's no how I read this book. I read The Man in the Empty Suit as an existentialist meditation--with mind-bending paradoxes and fiendish chases--on fate and how, even though all the versions of the narrator should be on the same side, every "I" is looking out for himself.

This book will make your head hurt, but in a good way.

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