Remember Back to the Future Part II? Yes, it’s the lesser entry in that film trilogy, and made so because it’s so darn confusing. Marty McFly has to travel back to 1955 to prevent a book of sport stats from falling into the wrong hands, but in doing so, he must not meet his former self from the previous journey to the past – doing so would unleash all sorts of paradoxes and mess around with the time and space continuum. Or some such thing.
Now imagine an entire novel built on that entire paradox. That various versions of yourself could meet at night at a specific point in the future and party until dawn on each of your birthdays. Can you image how confusing things might become if you were to deviate from the script of each of your encounters? Well, that’s essentially the big glaring problem of Sean Ferrell’s Man in the Empty Suit, a book that strives to reach the profundity of early Jonathan Lethem, crossed with that author’s penchant for weirdness and genre mashing. The thing is, Man in the Empty Suit is gutted with plot holes and is filled with characters that are either shrilly unlikeable or mere stand-ins to be objectified. And yes, there are other characters beyond the various iterations of the main character. A few, at least.
In a nutshell, Man in the Empty Suit plays like a futuristic murder mystery, making it nestle close to Lethem’s debut, Gun, With Occasional Music. It turns out that the nameless protagonist, at age 39, decides to attend his birthday party in a nearly abandoned New York of 2071 inside a rundown hotel, and dresses up in a fancy suit because… well, I guess it was just a whim.
The thing is, once he gets there, he nearly witnesses the murder of his 40-year-old self – a murder that he is unaware of in past iterations of the event. So, essentially, the Suit (as he comes to call himself) is tasked with solving the murder. But things get complicated. A woman named Lily, whom the narrator has never met before, turns up at said party, too, as an invited guest, and, here’s a bit of a spoiler alert, finds herself in danger. And so the murder mystery of one person shifts to the protection of another.
Quite frankly, Man in the Empty Suit is a baffling read – though a mercifully quick read, owing to the large-ish print. The plot is wrapped in paradox after paradox, and most of the rules of time travel that you would have learned from watching Back to the Future are thrown out the window. The novel begins with a set of rules that those attending the birthday party must follow, but those, too, are sort of put by the wayside. And it is never quite clear who would be enforcing the rules to begin with.
Additionally confounding is the fact that the party is set in a crumbling New York City where food is scarce, but there’s plenty of stuff to graze on at this party. It isn’t until page 100 and something that the reader learns that the narrator has made countless trips to the beginning of the party to deliver enough food for all of those attending to have. But still, the party runs out of some really good 12-year-old scotch. Which would be a plot hole: if you could make countless deliveries to the morning of your futuristic birthday party in some dystopia, couldn’t you just keep making deliveries to ensure that the alcohol product never really runs out? Something doesn’t jive there.
Equally baffling is the fact that the youngest person at the party is supposed to be “the Inventor”, who came up with the time travel concept at the tender age of 18 (and seemingly didn’t want to share the concept with anyone and, you know, become wealthy and famous). However, there are younger selves who eventually come to the hotel, and the novel doesn’t explain how or why they got there, what they’re doing there, and why some of them seemingly want to kill the narrator. Which is odd because the whole point of the book is to have the narrator prevent his own death – so why would his younger selves want to knock him off? I’m confused.
Worse yet, the main narrator comes off as a jerk. He doesn’t want to share any information about his future with himself (not that it would have really mattered, as it turns out), and he’s constantly telling himself “You should know” whenever the future is probed to someone who’s older. And let me emphasize the word constantly, like it’s a very clever joke the author came up with and feels compelled to bash the reader over the head with 248 times throughout the course of the novel. So, yes, we get it. The main character is a bit of an ass. But why? And, if he’s such an unlikable character, why would we, the reader, feel the need to sympathize with him in any fashion?
What about the fact that there are older versions of the narrator – called “the Elders” – at the party? How would it be possible for someone to attend a party such as this one at a fixed time and place when those versions or copies of oneself don’t even exist yet? This is never explained. Along with the fact that if the character is murdered at the age of 40, how would different versions of yourself from other variations of the future be present? Wha’ the whatty-wha’-wha’? Shouldn’t you be dead?
And then there’s the nature of the woman Lily. She enters the party, and the man in the suit hardly raises an eyebrow – despite the fact that only prior and future versions of himself are invited. So he doesn’t, you know, go over and talk to her and find out why she’s there or what she has to do with his own murder. Well, at least not right away. The main character is soon talking to her, and, before they really get a chance to know each other, they’re groping at each other, making out, and this very quickly (over the course of an evening) escalates to sex. Nevermind that there’s a body of himself lying in a make-shift “morgue” and the main character would probably want to ensure his own self-preservation before bringing another life into the mix.
But the most egregious thing Man in the Empty Suit does is leave the party. About halfway through the book, the character goes on a quest to ensure that Lily doesn’t achieve any great harm, and we’re treated to lengthy passages about her life and the mixed up world of the inhabitants of this falling apart city. It’s boring. And seemingly has nothing to do with the main plot introduced, which, by the way, and here’s a spoiler for you, isn’t ever resolved. The book just drops the whole point and set-up to become something like Lethem’s Amnesia Moon, which was a novel put together from various short stories that Lethem had been working on and had been seemingly unable to sell or have congeal. It just seems that Man in the Empty Suit is just weird for the sake of being weird and po-mo, and there’s not much of a point to it than that.
Suppose you can overlook the plot holes. Suppose you can overlook the major tonal shift about halfway through. Suppose you want to read a book that may very well put you to sleep. I would suppose, in those instances, Man in the Empty Suit might be a worthy read. For everyone else, I would recommend staying as far clear from this book as you can. It’s simply sophomoric, the work of an author just doodling around for his own amusement, and, just like the outfit the main character wears, is inflated by its own sense of self-importance. I can’t recall reading a book this awful in some time; it may have been years perhaps.
Man in the Empty Suit is, at best, simply low rent Jonathan Lethem. While Lethem’s early books may be somewhat flawed, at least you can say that they’re interesting. You can’t say the same thing about this one. It is, in short, an empty novel and wholly unsatisfying on so many levels that, in the end, the plot holes and countless paradoxes don’t matter much.