The protagonist in Sean Ferrell’s Man in the Empty Suit has seen and done it all. Thanks to his ability to travel in time, he’s cruised all the way up and down the course of human history. There’s not much that’ll get him excited anymore. Every year, he travels to the year 2071, the 100th anniversary of his own birth, to celebrate his birthday with dozens of younger and older versions of himself. It’s the world’s most exclusive party: only he and other versions of himself are invited.
However, on the year he turns 39, things don’t go exactly as planned: he discovers the body of his 40-year-old self, apparently murdered by a gunshot to the head. Surrounded by alternate versions of himself in varying states of intoxication, his mission is clear: he has to find out who murdered his one-year-older self, before it’s too late.
The premise of Man in the Empty Suit seemed so intriguing and, well, crazy that I had to check it out. It’s a variant of the Grandfather Paradox, sure, but it’s one I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately it does nothing exciting with its concept, at least in the portion of it I read: after a few dozen pages, I had to convince myself to keep reading, and after 150 pages or so I finally gave up.
The main problem is that there’s really not much to the book, once you get past the concept. A birthday party where all the guests are the same person at different ages. Very cool idea. Then tie a murder mystery into that. Okay, that could be interesting. Time travel meets Clue at the world’s most exclusive party.
Unfortunately, Man in the Empty Suit overdoes the temporal/grandfather paradox concept: what happens if you travel to your own past? If you affect that past, will it change the time you traveled from? It’s the old story: kill a butterfly in the past and come back to find the entire future has been changed — except instead of a butterfly, you’ve got a self-centered alcoholic in a hotel room talking to dozens of versions of himself, and now one of them (presumably) has gone and shot one of the other ones.
What originally intrigued me gets irritating in no time. The temporal paradox thing is overdone, and then done some more, and then hashed over again, and that’s just in the first twenty or thirty pages. I started out genuinely curious about where this was going, but couldn’t work up the motivation to get to the end.
That’s partly because the main character got on my nerves right from the start. Aside from being a time traveler, he’s basically just a narcissistic jerk with a lot of money and a drinking habit. I’m not the kind of reader who needs a likable main character to enjoy a novel, but Man in the Empty Suit is filled with dozens of versions of that same narcissistic jerk. They’re all the same person, at different ages, and they only invited themselves to their own party.
Actually, to make an attempt at defining the different versions of the character, Sean Ferrell ends up having the narrator call them by nicknames: one who’s particularly drunk is called the Drunk, the one wearing a yellow sweater is called Yellow, and so on. But again — they’re all him. It’s like that scene in Being John Malkovich where he ends up in a world full of Malkoviches, except it goes on for the length of a novel and all of them are the kind of person you desperately want to get away from at a party. Except you can’t because they’re all him, and they all only talk about themselves. I don’t know who killed the 40-year-old version of the main character, but if he’d been stuck going to this party for the past 39 years, I confess to having a certain degree of sympathy for him.
Some of the narrator’s other selves presumably know who or what killed the narrator’s one-year-older self (being older themselves, so from the future, so, well, you get it). Again, it’s intriguing. I put the book aside a few times, but kept reading far longer than I wanted to out of sheer curiosity. I’m still sort of curious to see what the actual explanation for all of this will be.
Still, having a few dozen identical and annoying characters stuck in a bland hotel, trying to figure out a time paradox… After about 150 pages, Man in the Empty Suit just became unreadable for me. And so, with great sadness, I pronounced the Eight Deadly Words and made this only my second did-not-finish novel of 2013.