This review is based on a finished copy of the book sent to me by SOHO Press.
The Premise: Every year, a time traveler travels to the same time and place: the Boltzmann Hotel, Manhattan, 1st of April, 2071, and celebrates his birthday with different versions of himself. It’s a tradition he started when he was eighteen years old and invented his time travel raft. On his thirty-ninth birthday, the party is different. This time he discovers what the elder versions of himself have been hiding from the younger ones – that there’s been a murder, and the victim is his forty-year old self. Unfortunately, no one over forty can remember exactly what happened, and they are panicked. The time traveler has to solve the murder before he becomes the victim.
My Thoughts: I loved the convoluted mystery implied by the premise of Man in the Empty Suit. With one man the center of everything – the future victim, the investigator, and all the suspects, I thought I was going to experience something very surreal, like an M.C. Escher image where everything loops cleverly back to the beginning. This story starts promisingly down this vein, but doesn’t quite complete the circuit.
This is how it all begins in the first fifty pages: the time traveling narrator enters the hotel and he’s persuaded to go above the third floor (a rule he had previously not broken) with an older version of himself. Then the older him sneaks off by taking the elevator back down and is found dead despite being supposedly alone in the car. Suddenly our narrator is surrounded by the older contingent of his birthday party, the Elders, who are all ‘helpfully’ giving him information about the murder and laying the whole problem in his hands. Our narrator, surrounded by himself has to mentally nickname his future selves based on their distinguishing features: Screwdriver, Yellow, Seventy, the Body. They all form a sort of secret club within the party, helping the narrator as he scrambles from the body to the ballroom and up and down the floors, trying to find clues while keeping his younger selves ignorant. This was all very weird, in an awesome way, but then all of a sudden there’s this paradox thrown in. And then a woman.
Somehow, the focus is taken away from the murder, and what I’m reading isn’t really a murder-mystery. This is more like a strange tale that examines this one character, his relationship with himself, a woman, Time, and whether everything he’s doing is predetermined or if he can change his fate. In theory I should be having a great time, but in reality I found myself sort of drifting through the pages. This wasn’t a difficult book to read (I was never confused about what was going on), nor did it drag, but I did feel like there wasn’t really a point to everything and the plot was just muddling along. I think if I was the sort of reader who could be content with what I got, which was personal growth, independent agendas, and time travel strangeness, I would have fared better, but my problem was that I had expectations that weren’t met. That this was a murder-mystery, first of all. If that wasn’t going to happen, I would have settled for some clever Möbius plot. Neither really panned out for me, and this left me discontent. For a long time after I finished Man in the Empty Suit I wondered if I had actually missed some vital piece of information that would have satisfied these expectations, but I have flipped back and forth through the last hundred pages and haven’t found it yet. Maybe I should be satisfied with the quiet and reflective ending instead of wanting a flashier one, but I’m not. To me, the way the story ended revealed that there was no plan. I felt like this story was pants-ed and not plotted, and it bugged me.
If plot is something that doesn’t quite work for me, sometimes the characters make up for it. In this case, our narrator (he never gets a name by the way, which I actually like), isn’t the easiest to relate to. I mean, who is the type of person to use their time-traveling raft to do nothing really special but study history, not for humanity, but for his own curiosity, and who likes to spend his birthday (for years and years!), with no one but himself? He’s so self-involved, that he wants to be the center of attention at the party where all the attendees are himself:
“Thoroughly frozen now, I rubbed my skin dry with my palms and then pulled my new clothes out of my travel bag: a suit, the Suit. At last my turn to wallow in the shit of self-adoration.
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.”
This self-absorption is reflected in every character that is him. Granted, the younger members of the party are immature in obvious ways (drunk throughout the party, or openly resentful), but while the Elders are more concerned about the welfare of the group, they are still selfish in their own ways. And does our protagonist grow in this book? Well he’s forced to go through a period of growth and eventually sees his own flaws, but it takes him a long time. So long that I spent most of the book not liking him.
Maybe this review sounds like a rant, but I’m trying to work through what’s not working because there’s something here, something that could be really good, but it’s not enough. I’m really close to having some undefinable list of personal requirements met that would leave me satisfied, but this story and I, we didn’t quite click.
Overall: My expectations led me astray on this one. I wanted one thing (crime solving, or time travel awesomeness), but I got something else (I’m not sure what to call it). The way this story bucked expectations is a positive, and I don’t think I could say I’ve ever read anything like this, but in the end I’m more of a feeler than a thinker when it comes to my reactions to things, and I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of this story.