Time travel riddle is at the heart of Empty Suit

MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT

By Sean Ferrell

Soho Press, $24.95; 306 pp.

Time traveling is tricky business. The possibility of running into and possibly interfering with some other version of yourself is perhaps one of the biggest dangers. Sean Ferrel’s novel Man in the Empty Suit is appealing partly because it tackles the problem head-on.

The nameless narrator, who refers to his own different identities as the Suit, the Drunk, Screwdriver, Yellow, Seventy and Nose, travels through time, but always returns on the 100th anniversary of his birth to a dilapidated New York hotel in the year 2071. The party is always the same — different versions of himself at various ages drinking too much, telling stories and lies and watching time travel movies. Until the Suit arrives. Or rather, the narrator becomes the Suit. Every youngster admires the Suit and looks forward to the day of being that seemingly confident and put-together individual. But this time, the arrival of the Suit is marred by a series of peculiar events that aren’t supposed to happen.

Suddenly and frighteningly, horrible things take place that none of the identities remembers.

One of the few failings of Ferrell’s novel is that he never explains why anyone would hold a birthday party in such a depressing locale and, more importantly, what happened to New York City in the mere 38 years between our own time and the near complete ruin that Ferrell describes. Nor does he tell the reader how the Inventor (a young version of the narrator) built the time travel device (known as “the raft”).

Ferrell does describe the lengthy party set-up. The narrator ferried food, drink, silverware, ice, and linens from other time periods to stock the abandoned hotel, all in preparation for what sounds like a mostly unpleasant affair. Perhaps the desire to be with different versions of oneself is narcissism at its worst.

The focus on the party rather than the state of the world in 2071 or the mechanics of time travel makes a certain amount of sense since The Man in the Empty Suit is really about the narrator and a woman sometimes named Lily who gets pulled into his world of multiple selves and heavy drinking. It is she who motivates him to change events and try to break his most important self-imposed rule “If it is broke, let it break again,” in order to save her life.

Ferrell perhaps leaves too much unexplained. Still, his novel raises big questions about self and identity through time. Besides, seeing where he takes such a fascinating and unique concept is just so much fun that the loose ends don’t matter at all.