Deep down, it must really grind Sean Ferrell’s gears that Rian Johnson’s Looper came out in 2012, since the film shares an awful lot of elements with Ferrell’s newest novel, Man In The Empty Suit. A showdown between younger and older versions of a protagonist; partnering with and protecting a mysterious woman; a vision of a decrepit future. But where Johnson’s film wants to make a statement about how individual actions can affect the world on a grand scale, Ferrell’s novel is much more self-reflexive.
An unnamed narrator invents time travel, but keeps it to himself, spending his years traversing time in his “raft,” alone with his genius. Every year, he travels to his 100th birthday in 2071, to an abandoned hotel in a desolate New York City—Ferrell isn’t exactly interested in how the world goes to shit, just that it has by the time the story takes place. The narrator goes to a party at the hotel populated by scores of his past and future selves, all together to drink, eat, socialize, and reminisce. This particular year, the narrator is 39, the version of himself all the others envy, because he wears the perfect suit. Upon arrival, he inexplicably discovers a version of himself from six months in the future, with a bullet through his head.
It’s an ingenious setup: a murder mystery where the victim, the detective, and every suspect are all the same person, and the detective is on the clock to find the killer before he becomes the corpse. The narrator goes into overdrive, frantically searching the party for clues and information, altering timelines, and misremembering events—none more important than the arrival of a mysterious woman in a red dress, who becomes his companion and obsession.
Ferrell’s narrator isn’t an everyman—he’s a selfish, self-centered jerk who constantly judges himself in the past and future as his emotional focus and desires shift. Versions of himself form alliances with each other, working to force different outcomes of the future. It’s clear Ferrell takes the Back To The Future II approach to infinite parallel timelines, but he dispels any significant bickering over the intricacies of time travel with the same kind of firm dismissal Johnson wrote for Bruce Willis in Looper.
Man In The Empty Suit runs into problems when it deviates from the party. It’s fascinating to see the gathering of versions of one person over the course of a life, with the psychological ramifications of every interaction available for analysis. But when the narrator makes a fatal error, and time-travels to fix his mistake, the story gets bogged down in interesting yet tangential material. Think the French-plantation sequence in Apocalypse Now Redux: intriguing when added onto a complete, streamlined story, unnecessarily distracting the first time through.
The final third of the book is a replay of the first half, with the narrator watching himself in the fancy suit, fulfilling a role at the party he always dreaded. It’s unsatisfying when the narrator stumbles through previously seen events from the other side while shedding little light on the proceedings from a second perspective. At times, the machinations of warring factions of selves dictate his position, but at other times, he exerts free will, tethering and untethering himself to various party guests. Ferrell doesn’t clearly make the distinction between when the narrator is taking matters into his own hands, and when he’s moving at the behest of unseen puppeteers. The alliances and switchbacks are confusing but not unmanageable—though the ending has a few plot holes big enough for a freight train.
Not to belabor the point with Looper comparisons, but brushing time paradoxes aside, Ferrell’s novel approaches its finale in a significantly different way. Johnson’s film ties things off—it leaves lingering questions about time travel, but it does “close the loop” neatly—whereas Ferrell has no problem offering the possibility of an aesthetically pleasing bookend, then shoving it aside with a halfhearted declaration in favor of free will. But both Looper and Man In The Empty Suit track the trajectory of a pained, lonely man who learns what it means to sacrifice for the sake of another’s well-being. In doing so, Ferrell’s narrator exits the self-destructive cycle and frees himself.