I, like many other readers in this forum (Goodreads Time Travel Discussion), would like to award this novel three stars. Yet I find myself advocating for a fourth instead.
Let me explain why:
Only 3 stars because the novel disappointed me.
4 stars because it also did not disappoint me.
Why did it disappoint me? Because The Man in the Empty Suit is not a science fiction novel. It is not a mystery novel either. I was almost half way through it before I realized these two facts. I had to slam on my mental brakes and start all over again.
The Man in the Empty Suit is a surrealistic character study. And it is a good one. As Ferrell himself expresses it, “For me the important part was the emotional journey he was going on as opposed to the ins and outs and technicalities of time travel.” Ferrell succeeds in what he was trying to do. I am taken on an emotional journey in a mood piece that is remarkably evocative and consistent. Yes, I don’t like the main character, but I am not supposed to, not until late in the novel. Both thematically and metaphorically the novel works. The character is well drawn and develops in a believable progression. The scenes of the novel are full of tension. I enjoyed it.
It also disappointed me.
I thought I was reading a science fiction mystery, the ultimate whodoneit wherein the protagonist is not only the murderer and victim by also the detective who solves the crime, told against a backdrop of time travel.
But this is not a science fiction novel. Ultimately, Ferrell has no theory of time, no explanation of tethering, no explanation of the time machines, time, or the logistics of a tethered multi-consciousness. It can’t have any of these because surrealism is an emotional world that lacks intellectual baggage. A work of surrealism cannot be explained. It is a dream, a poem in prose, a character groping in the dark. To shine light upon that darkness would destroy it.
This novel has more in common with Franz Kafka than H. G. Wells. Ferrell’s ambitions are literary. He is not trying to establish a spot in the science fiction time travel pantheon. He would rather be taken seriously.
This novel is also not a mystery. It is not a whodoneit. Ferrell doesn’t care who committed the murders or why. He is tracing the emotional experience of a character. That experience is not logical; it does not make sense. The world of this character cannot be explained, only felt. To explain it would be to destroy it, to ruin the surrealistic mood, undermine the novel’s theme, and violate the conventions of its genre.
You cannot have it both ways.
This novel is either surrealism or a science fiction mystery. It cannot be both—they are inimical to each other. Ferrell chooses surrealism. Good for him—he chooses what he wants and sticks to it. In the process he disappoints a lot of readers, me included.
He also does not disappoint me. I love surrealism. I love the works of Kafka, the art of Dali, the films of Brunuel. I enjoyed this book for what it is. This is a memorable character in a memorable story. It will stick with me.
But it also disappointed me because I am a fan of both science fiction and mystery novels. I thought I was reading a science fiction mystery novel. I was nearly half way through when I realized, “There isn’t going to be any solution to this crime. None of the science fiction elements are going to be explained or reconciled. This story is nonsensical.”
Okay, I get it. I like the works of Lewis Carroll and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I appreciate poetry. Not everything has to make sense. But here I am like a diner in a restaurant who’s ordered a steak and been served lasagna instead.
I love lasagna. It’s a four star lasagna, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But where’s my steak? I had my appetite whetted for a steak.
It’s difficult to switch gears and look at a book through a different lens when you’re already halfway to the end. It was a letdown to know I’d invested in a story that doesn’t exist. If I didn’t like surrealism, I would have quit reading there. The book takes a hard left turn, and it’s like starting over. I had to adjust all of my expectations and read the book differently.
So how can I give Ferrell’s book a four star review? Granted, it is a real achievement. It works as a surrealistic character study. I liked it. Ferrell’s hard work and accomplishment deserve recognition. How can I fault it for not being what it can’t be?
The novel has a lot to recommend it. Alcoholism as a party only you and your past selves are invited to (even though you don’t really like yourself) is a great metaphor. The decay of the Boltzmann Hotel and New York City itself is a great metaphor for what has happened to the protagonist’s life. The book is full of gems. The protagonist invents a time machine but does nothing constructive with it but drink and drive.
Still, how can I get over my disappointment with the book? I feel I was promised one thing and given another, the old switcheroo. Surely Ferrell deserves to be dinged for that.
I recommend Ferrell’s novel as a work of surrealism. It’s not absurdist. It really does come to something in the end. But what about the science fiction mystery I was hoping for?
Well, maybe I can do something about that. I’ve written a plot outline, reimagining this novel as a time travel mystery. I explain time, tethering, and time travel, and I reveal who the murderer is, and how, where, and why the murder was committed. I have in effect rewritten this to be the novel I had hoped for in my head—and since doing that I no longer feel disappointed.
I hope Sean Ferrell and you the reader of this can forgive me for my grandiosity. I plead guilty to overarching ambition and throw myself on the mercy of the court. But Humbert-like I add, “my plot outline of the reimagined Man in the Empty Suit is under ‘Reviews’ in the ‘Extras’ section of my web site nedhuston.com.”
I read once that people should not review books in a genre they dislike. People who hate science fiction should not review a science fiction novel. They will get it wrong and will not do it justice. Similarly, if you do not like surrealism, should you post a review of The Man in the Empty Suit on Goodreads? If you are disappointed with the book because you dislike its genre, because it didn’t fit the genre you hoped it to be, is giving it a poor review really fair? Are you giving Ferrell his due?
Read my plot outline of a reimagined version of the novel (on nedhuston.com) and see if it changes your mind. I feel much better about the book now that my desire for the ultimate science fiction whodoneit has been met. Maybe you will too.
My Review of The Man in the Empty Suit
I was disappointed with The Man in the Empty Suit for not being the science fiction mystery that I expected. So I reimagined it as one. Read my plot outline that re-envisions the book as a time travel whodoneit under Reviews in the Extras section of my web site nedhuston.com. It explains tethering, time and time travel and reveals who the murderer is, and how, where and why the crime was committed.