Man in the Empty Suit and the Sad Side of Time Travel

Sean Ferrell’s second novel addresses what it means to really look at yourself, literally.

Soho Press

Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell, follows a world-weary time traveler who celebrates every birthday by visiting the same spot in the far future. Once a year he gathers with scores of selves at an abandoned New York City hotel, each self from a different year of his life—some older and inscrutable, some younger and insufferable. The story begins when the central character, now in his 39th year, arrives at the party and stumbles upon an inexplicably murdered self from six months in the future. He has to figure out what happened before he becomes that corpse.

Ferrell's second novel explores emotional disconnection and the prison of situated cognition, making for a satisfying read that recalls both Philip K. Dick and Paul Auster.

It’s an arresting setup—the same character is simultaneously the murder victim, suspect, and investigator—and Ferrell exploits it carefully to address issues of identity and social interaction. Like his debut book, Numb, Ferrell’s second novel explores emotional disconnection, the yield of our alienating society, and the prison of situated cognition, making for a satisfying read that recalls both Philip K. Dick and Paul Auster.

The time traveler’s birthday party is a curious mix of memory, anticipation, and anxiety. The narrator sees himself in various stages of alcoholism, weight gain, and hair loss. He knows full well that he was or will be everyone he meets, and will experience the party through each of their eyes, from the brash and childish 20-year-olds tending the bar, to the sloshed 40-something who everyone avoids and refers to only as “The Drunk.” The novel’s title is taken from the one moment in the central character's life that he really looks forward to experiencing: that of a confident self wearing a black suit who enters the party every year possessed of an apparent inner certainty—a man, it seems, of purpose.

Every year the entire party—all my selves—paused in respect when the Suit made the Entrance into the ballroom. All my other visits to the party were tainted. I always tried too hard to be the center of attention, even with myself. Especially with myself. But the Suit was beyond that; everyone paid attention to him without any effort on his part at all. A few times I tried to get close to him, to get a sense of when I might be him, but I had never been able to get his attention. It was as if he were attending a party to which no one else was invited.

In the year the novel is set, he is that man, though it’s not revealing much to say he’s not at all the man he thought he’d be. The moments he has long observed and yearned to experience pass by in an instant; he only realizes after the fact that they’ve occurred at all.

The entire novel is threaded with a subtle meditation on the nature of such expectations and on growth and maturity. When the narrator sees past versions of himself, he feels agitated; when he chats with himself from the future, he finds that person inaccessible. It raises a question: If we were to really consider the basic frustrations of simply being alive—of facing our shortcomings at any given moment, and of thinking back on the sorry mistakes we’ve made and the bleak uncertainties ahead—what time traveler among us wouldn’t consider committing the first and only literal murder-suicide in history? Similarly, those who, from a perspective of five years ago, think they could really know the people they are today are either supremely well-adjusted or just kidding themselves. The strongest current that carries any of us through life flows from our brain's ability to rewrite our inglorious pasts while remaining fixed on some nebulous hope for the future. Life is a cycle of delusions and dreams buffered by a membrane of tedium.

The novel isn’t quite so grim as it may sound, though it is a moody tale. Ferrell infuses the story with levity through clever uses of time travel, such as willing things to happen by remembering to do them later: “Repeated promises sometime stuck, and I sometimes kept them. I’d once managed to hide a half bottle of vodka in an empty planter for the Youngster who dreamed of finding one there.” Likewise, the “convention rules” that open the book immediately establish the parameters of the story and the attending humor and quirkiness of a frayed timeline: It includes such items as “If it broke before, let it break again” and “Don’t expect anyone to be impressed.”

Still, in a disarming way, Ferrell presents the reader with some ugly truths about life and owning up to who we really are. Ferrell himself has jokingly called it the time-travel book of 3102, but I wouldn’t suggest waiting that long.

(N.B.: I have a conversation with Sean Ferrell here, where we discuss his writing process and how Man in the Empty Suit came to be.)