Book review: Science fiction, mystery fill out 'The Empty Suit'


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The Beatles once sang, "They say it's your birthday. Well, it's my birthday, too." This could be the theme song for the characters in Sean Ferrell's sci-fi mystery novel "Man in the Empty Suit."

The party begins on April 1, 2071, at the Boltzmann Hotel in New York City. It is a birthday party for all of the participants, but in this case they are all the same person at various stages of his life. They have come together to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their birth.

Since this party is an annual event -- the 19th time it has been celebrated -- it comes with a proscribed set of rules, all of which will be broken in due course. The intrigue begins when a mysterious woman in red appears for the first time at what is normally an exclusive party. The body of one of the attendees is discovered on an elevator with a bullet wound to the head.


"MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT"

By Sean Ferrell
Soho Press ($24.95).


At this point, the novel shifts gear into a Chandler-esque detective whodunit. We soon find out why everyone has a possible motive. Events spiral downward, resulting in a pair of shootings. "Man in the Empty Suit" is told from the perspective of a nameless 39-year-old male who has attended the party many times, but has now become the central character -- the Suit. He describes his other "selves" by how they dress (Ugly Tie, Turtleneck, Yellow Sweater, Toga), by age (Six, Seven, Seventy) or other labels (Inventor, Screwdriver, the Nose, Sober, the Drunk).

There is a strange tension among the many "selves." They lie to one another and the older "selves" don't get along. These characters are divided along age lines as the Elders and the Youngsters. Classic rebelliousness from the Youngsters leads to open hostility between these two groups.

The narrator has traveled back in time via his "raft," a time machine he developed at a younger age. Now, he must go back in time to try to keep elements of that evening from occurring so as to prevent the murders. In doing so, he could alter the future of his "selves" -- Mr. Ferrell uses the term "untethering." This change in the future lives seems to happen in an almost random fashion. In a paradoxical sense, if one was killed, the ramifications should have dire consequences for everyone in the Elder group.

The first half of the novel centers on the initial party and the events surrounding it. The middle is about the main character needing to get acquainted with Lily, the lady in red. The future New York is quite deteriorated, with buildings collapsing and food scarce.

Survival is quite the challenge. It is here that our main character meets a fellow named Phil who employs Lily as a person who "remembers those things that you forgot made you happy."

Phil, an eccentric who is probably the most well-developed character in the novel, is a collector of all things and would probably be called a hoarder today. Phil becomes the protagonist's vehicle for learning about himself and is his ticket to survival.

Author Sean Ferrell lives in New York City. His other novel, "Numb," a story about a man with no memory and no capacity to feel pain, was published in 2010. He also won a Fulton Prize from "The Adirondack Review" for his short story "Building an Elephant."

"Man in the Empty Suit" has a clever enough premise that could be straight out of a Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut novel. It shifts genre from science fiction to detective mystery. It also conjures up a moral dilemma for the protagonist in his quest to resolve his clouded future, especially in regard to Lily.

Mr. Ferrell develops some characters well, though others, particularly many of the "selves," are lacking in distinctive traits to the point of being confusing. He does have great compassion for his younger characters. He doesn't explain how the time-traveling "raft" works or how New York City became so desolate. A few more pages devoted to explaining these would have made things more plausible. But still, the complexity of the novel more than makes up for its shortcomings.

bookreviews

Paul Zotter is a writer living in the South Hills (zotter533@comcast.net).


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