Man in the Empty Suitby Sean Ferrell
Say you're a time traveler and you've already toured the entirety of human history. After a while, the outside world might lose a little of its luster. That's why this time traveler celebrates his birthday partying with himself. Every year, he travels to an abandoned hotel in New York City in 2071, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and drinks twelve-year-old… See more details below
Say you're a time traveler and you've already toured the entirety of human history. After a while, the outside world might lose a little of its luster. That's why this time traveler celebrates his birthday partying with himself. Every year, he travels to an abandoned hotel in New York City in 2071, the hundredth anniversary of his birth, and drinks twelve-year-old Scotch (lots of it) with all the other versions of who he has been and who he will be. Sure, the party is the same year after year, but at least it's one party where he can really, well, be himself.
The year he turns 39, though, the party takes a stressful turn for the worse. Before he even makes it into the grand ballroom for a drink he encounters the body of his forty-year-old self, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. As the older versions of himself at the party point out, the onus is on him to figure out what went wronghe has one year to stop himself from being murdered, or they're all goners. As he follows clues that he may or may not have willingly left for himself, he discovers rampant paranoia and suspicion among his younger selves, and a frightening conspiracy among the Elders. Most complicated of all is a haunting woman possibly named Lily who turns up at the party this year, the first person besides himself he's ever seen at the party. For the first time, he has something to lose. Here's hoping he can save some version of his own life.
Praise for Man in the Empty Suit
"Ferrell's humor and invention will draw you in, and the real emotion in his writing will keep you reading. A clever premise that deepens into a surprising and moving story about fate, identity, and how we shape our own lives and the lives of those around us."
—Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
“A tour de force. Ferrell's skill in plotting is matched only by his ability to bring fully-formed characters to life. A moving and brilliantly-executed puzzle of a novel.”
—Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet
"Ferrell makes a strong case to be the Kurt Vonnegut of his generation. Man in the Empty Suit is alternately funny, sad, and thought-provoking.... I wish I could travel back in time and write this book myself."
—Andrew Shaffer, bestselling author of Fifty Shames of Earl Grey
"Man in the Empty Suit is a marvel: a complicated, soul searching, entirely riveting piece of work."
—Marcy Dermansky, author of Bad Marie
“An arresting setup—the same character is simultaneously the murder victim, suspect, and investigator—and Ferrell exploits it carefully... [presenting] 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.”
“[Man in the Empty Suit has] an ingenious setup....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.”
—The A.V. Club
“Ferrell’s novel satisfies as both a tale of a four-dimensional conspiracy and as a stark meditation on solitude.”
“An exceptional read for any sci-fi fan who enjoys a challenge.”
—The Maine Edge
“Ferrell (Numb) has written a brain-teasing, paradox-defying, time travel mystery in the tradition of such pretzel-bending-logic classics as Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Robert A. Heinlein’s 'By His Bootstraps.'”
"Engaging and thought-provoking...It will also appeal to readers of Stephen King’s 11/22/63."
"Full of imagination and head-scratching conundrums... It should definitely appeal to those who enjoy offbeat sf and mystery fiction."
"Man in the Empty Suit has a clever enough premise that it could be straight out of a Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut novel.”
“Out of this intriguing premise Sean Ferrell proceeds to spin a dark hybrid of Paul Auster and the film Memento, complete with a mysterious love interest... Best of all, however, is the evocation of mid-21st century New York as a melancholy, dilapidated place high in entropy, cluttered with ruined buildings, and weirdly infested with parrots.”
—The Toronto Star
"Man in the Empty Suit is a rich, complex novel.... a slightly sinister, brooding tale of death and lost love."
“A most unusual murder mystery.”
“Enter a mysterious woman with parrot tattoos, a post-apocalyptic Manhattan, Vonnegut-sharp humor and Hemingway-spare prose, and you’ve got some seriously good sci-fi. VERDICT: Buy, you fools!”
“A cerebral, noirish, and very unusual novel … a challenge for me to put down. This one made me think about it long after I was finished.”
—My Bookish Ways
“This is trippy book; a great read... Ferrell spins a web of lies, deceit, and self-loathing, sprinkles it with intelligent humor and wit, a dash of love and loss, and presents it to the reader on a silver platter.”
“[Man in the Empty Suit] is tickling the Dr. Who parts of my brain, but in a really dark kind of way.... As you can imagine, this has one hell of an opening line: It is unfortunate for me that I am, by most any objective measure, a genius. Quite the set up for an interesting story.”
—A Home Between Pages
Praise for Sean Ferrell's Numb
"Ferrell's eye-catching debut is a mordant take on contemporary culture."
"Offbeat.... The book has a lot of heart."
"A masterwork of transgressive fiction."
—David Brown, writer for The Week, The Atlantic, and Mental Floss
- Soho Press, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt
IT IS UNFORTUNATE for me that I am, by most any objective measure, a genius.
I was forced to realize just how unfortunate on my thirty-ninth birthday. As had been my custom for nineteen years, I arrived at the Boltzmann Hotel in Manhattan on April 1, 2071. One hundred years earlier, across town at New York Medical Center, lay my mother, lightning flashing outside the single window in her gray cube of a hospital room as I kicked and refused to come out. Later, in my twenty-sixth or twenty-seventh subjective year, while horribly, inevitably drunk, I paid a visit to the hospital on the night of my birth in 1971. I’d stolen an orderly’s uniform and faked my way through the halls, arms filled with bedpans, until I found the maternity ward. There she’d been, my mother, younger than I could ever remember, screaming and sweating. Inside her was me, preborn me, nascent genius (by objective standards, not mine), stuck on her pelvis and grinding my head into her spine.
She never saw me. I left after placing a bedpan on the floor—the doctor had to trip on it, fall headfirst against the bathroom doorknob, and spend the rest of the night concussed and vomiting. He had to be replaced by an intern and a near-retirement nurse who knew more than all the rest of us present, who took hold of me and pulled me into the world despite all my objections. I knew this from many tellings of “The Night You Were Born.” So I left the bedpan for the doctor.
That was the only year of my time-traveling life when I spent my birthday anywhere other than the Boltzmann. It was the year I stopped serving drinks to myself from behind the bar and focused instead on the drinking of them before it. As I traveled, I counted my days. When another 365 had passed for me—subjectively, not objectively; objective time and I stopped talking years ago—I would direct the raft back to April 1, 2071. I would dock in the city at easily recalled locations—the mouth of the Holland Tunnel, the mayor’s Gracie Mansion bedroom, beside the Astor Place “cube” statue,
atop the Empire State Building’s observation deck—and then walked directly to the Boltzmann. These places would echo with my footsteps, silence sealing in around me as the raft cooled and lost the pop and crackle of heated filaments and nearly burned-out wiring. In parking, my focus was making the raft easy to find. My celebrations were cloudier each year, and by my thirty-ninth subjective birthday the possibility of entirely forgetting where I was parked and being stuck in the vacant city seemed very real. Sometimes I left chalk arrows on walls, signed with my age, pointing me back to where I’d left the machine. I could also follow my own footprints in the ever-present mud—a mix of the constant rain and the slow demise of the city’s concrete and stone. The city in 2071 is full of good parking places. Just one subjective year earlier, when I was thirty eight, I had parked inside what was left of Lincoln Center. It resembled a rookery, flocking with parrots, their inane chatter filling the darkness with conversations echoing Playbill notes and intermission critiques of performances ended decades earlier. Manhattan had become a parrot’s island. I’d parked at Lincoln Center with Isadora Duncan in mind, a sentimental ode—I’d just left her in 1927—but upon returning to the raft I’d found it covered in bird droppings.
This time I parked in the dried-out bowl of Central Park’s Pond. My machine winked in about four inches above the brown-clay mud bottom and then slid slightly lower into the septic water. I swore softly, but there was no finding a better spot. Once landed, the raft took nearly a full twenty-four hours to run again, and so parking was always cautious guesswork seasoned with a rush of panic. I powered the raft down, muttering to myself about the stupidity of choosing such a spot in a rainstorm. None of the drug dealers doing business in the bushes around me said anything. People willing to brave the storm to hang out in Central Park weren’t the sort to talk about seeing a shuddering metallic platform appear in midair. I took my time covering the raft with a blue tarp and left the park, guided by familiar lightning flashes, one ear perked for parrot conversations.
I could take my time, and did, spoke loudly to myself as I walked. No one would mind. No one would hear. I’d seen few people on the streets on my first trip to that date, and I saw fewer with every visit. Buildings lurked, dark and empty. Electricity worked sporadically at best, rising and falling as if with a tidal pull. The hotel I’d made my base was abandoned, rotting and rotted, and I’d never seen a soul other than myself near it.
Exiting the park, I slipped in some mud, landing hard. I didn’t mind. My coveralls were always filthy. I’d recently been on the raft for twenty-three days straight during a cool September, docked in a fir tree in the Teutoburg Forest in the first century, waiting to see Germanic tribes battle Roman soldiers. I had grown sticky with sap, camouflaged with dirt and needles. I’d nearly given up after two weeks, when a small group of Romans, sick with dysentery, filthy as rats and rank as shit, finally staggered into view and built a camp. They were slaughtered a week later, in the middle of the night by some hunters while I slept, their skulls left nailed to the nearby trees, including one directly below me. History books yet again proved how far off the mark they could be.
I found a subway entrance near Times Square and descended to the train platform. The station, lit somewhat strobingly, echoed with my steps. I was alone and cold in my nudity as I peeled away the filthy coveralls. In one pocket I found my two flasks, one for business and one for pleasure. This was time for business, and I opened it and poured water onto a rag. I cleaned my body as best I could. The water lasted only a little while, the rag slightly longer before it ended up tossed onto the tracks. I didn’t feel clean, but I could pretend I looked it. 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.
Nineteen years felt like a long time to wait to finally become yourself. Since my first visit to the hotel, my wardrobe had been a means of understanding events, framing them, and of differentiating. I recognized versions of myself based on what they wore. This me was Turtleneck, that one Ugly Tie. Yellow Sweater. Spats. Hanfu. Toga. No matter when I came from, I tried to look my best. Most impressive of all was the Suit. Simple, black, foreboding. I had longed to wear the Suit since the first time I’d seen myself in it, longed to be the type of person who had such confidence and focus, someone above the fray. 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 meantime I’d browsed shop windows in many eras. I would know the suit when I saw it, I told myself. Patience—overrated, useless, relative—was not something I enjoyed. But the Suit was older than me, so I’d be him eventually. He’d been far older at one point, but I was gaining. As the subjective years passed and I realized that the gray in my hair began to match his, I grew to be more of a fatalist in my shopping. I would find the suit, I assumed. I didn’t need to put effort into the search.
Drinking helped. During a bender through the 1960s, I woke in Chicago near Soldier Field. I found a note pinned to my sleeve reminding me that the raft was on a docked barge on Lake Michigan, due to leave at noon. In my hurry to the docks, I nearly rushed past a men’s clothing store. In the window, on a headless mannequin, stood the suit. I hadn’t even needed to alter it; it fit as though it had been made for me. My turn had come. This year I would be the Suit, and I would make the Entrance. I mulled over a dozen memories of watching myself make the Entrance from my earlier perspectives—sitting around small tables in the Boltzmann ballroom drinking scotch, tequila, even—God help me, just that once—a wine spritzer, when the Suit walked in, powerful, impervious. I think the Suit may be one of the only reasons I kept returning. He promised, in a way so smart and casually expensive, that I would “make it.”
Now, on the night of the Entrance, I stood on the subway platform and wondered when to arrive. I checked my watch—my own design, a dozen hands spinning at various speeds to show both objective and subjective time, from years to seconds, laid upon a face that would never be the same twice. I was actually early for the gathering, which seemed strange. In my memories the Suit arrived late, made a dramatic entrance. I wondered how I was going to kill time, at least a few hours. Despite the suit, I was exhausted and too long drinkless. I felt no different than I had prior to putting it on.
Disappointing. I hesitated but went for my flask anyway. A toast to the suit. Two. I stopped there, since I remembered the Suit had not been drunk when he arrived. I would look sharp, polished, and focused on my way to the ballroom bar. I walked slow; the liquor had made me feel better, more relaxed. I knew how these things worked; I trusted fate would deliver me at the right moment by presenting some unexpected obstacle to delay me.
Port Authority Terminal—redundant stairs, inexplicable turns and filthy dead ends—had a tunnel entrance to the Boltzmann. Rainwater leaked through the ceiling and ran down walls, pooled at the bottoms of stairs where so much runoff had collected over the years that stalagmite stone grew black-gray on lower steps. I broke the first rule of feeling secure in the subway: Don’t look at the ceiling. I walked faster.
I reached the final turn before the entrance and paused, lurked behind girders. Shadows moved around me. Behind a garbage can. Beside a maintenance-closet door. Someone held the tattered remains of a Radio City Music Hall advertisement in front of his face as he skulked along the wall.
These were other versions of myself, obviously older, as I had no memory of having hidden in those places. I made a mental note to remember to use those hideouts in my future, when I would be those paranoid, shadowy figures. Despite never seeing another soul near the hotel, I was annually embarrassed to be seen coming in, as if someone might notice the same man in an array of outmoded outfits—what amounted to a tacky historical fashion show—and wonder why his lapels were so wide or when the cape had come back in. None of me would be able to explain that.
My poster-carrying self made a break for it and charged the hotel’s entrance, shedding flecks of old glue. I took this as my opportunity and stepped out from behind the girder, hands in pockets. I was the Suit, trying to be casual. I passed through the revolving door. The poster bearer, only slightly older than me, stood on the other side, brushing glue from his hands. On the dark granite floor lay his discarded Rockettes poster, beautiful legs kicking in a wrinkled heap. We nodded amiably at each other.
I gestured over my shoulder at the shadows behind girders and garbage cans. “Should we wait for a few more of them and enter together?”
“No, I don’t think so. We get a little more scared every year, don’t we? A little more cautious? They might be out there an hour.”
I nodded. He was dressed in a simple white shirt and a knitted sweater-vest. Unimpressive, I thought, compared to my suit. He wore a short, carefully maintained beard, one some Elders wore at various lengths, and his hair was neat and recently trimmed. I regretted not getting a trim myself, though I hadn’t yet made up my mind on growing the beard. I was still unsure of what it did for me, but apparently someday I would decide it was a good idea. On his lapel sat my small objective-subjective clock. I took a quick look and calculated the various arms. This instance’s clock showed he was only six months older than me. He had come to the party even though it wasn’t his birthday.
“You didn’t wait the full year?” Not accusing, just curious. It was against the rules, but the rules had been broken before.
“Sue me. I got bored,” he said. He looked me up and down.
“I did love that suit.”
“Thanks. What happens to it?” I asked, knowing he wouldn’t answer. That was against the rules, too.
He half smiled. “You’d really rather not know.” He climbed the stairs into the hotel’s basement entrance. “Let’s go.”
I took one last look at the figures hiding in the shadows outside the revolving door’s thick glass, then followed his clicking soles up the stairs.
The elevator was waiting for us; it would break later in the evening. It was an old wood-paneled box with a metal cage pull door, and it looked more like a kitchen entrance than an elevator. In a couple hours, there would hang a sign on the door that read, in my hand, “Out of Order.” It was this sign that made the subway entrance so crowded. To be late meant a rain-soaked arrival through the lobby entrance.
We climbed in. He pressed the button and watched me take my flask from my pocket.
I tilted the top toward him and said, “Cheers.” He smiled and nodded. He produced no flask of his own. “Did you forget this?” I asked, shaking the suddenly-too-empty flask to hear its contents slosh. It had been a gift to myself, liberated off the body of a Union soldier at Gettysburg.
“No, I didn’t forget it. Just didn’t bring it.”
“Have a hit off mine, then.” Mine was his. Sharing it was no different from taking two drinks. I didn’t even mind the backwash. Just spit that my mouth hadn’t made yet.
“No thanks. Believe it or not, I’m trying to quit.”
I laughed and took a swig. “Good luck with that.” He knew as well as I what some of our older selves were like. The one that was the worst—the Drunk—made such a spectacle of himself that he drew attention away from the simpler drunks, the ones who merely spilled and swore as they struggled with their zippers in the bathroom. Without the Drunk around, any of them might have looked up at the barrel’s bottom. A chill ran through me as I realized that after my evening as the Suit, all I had to look forward to was thrashing about as the Drunk.
The elevator rattled as it rose. We passed the lobby, then the second floor. “Damn, what’s happened?” I reached out and pressed the “L” button hard. “Did you hit the right button?”
He stood at the back of the elevator, behind me. His voice was quiet as he said, “I thought I did.”
The hand of the dial over the door crawled clockwise past floor after decrepit floor. The Boltzmann had been old when people still walked the streets of the city, and after its abandonment it had suffered a slow degradation. The elevator buttons didn’t illuminate, and to my left was a pale section of paneling where a conductor’s coat had brushed for so many years that it left the wood polished and faded.
I said, “Wonder where we’re headed.”
“Only so many choices.”
The uneven ride was pierced by irregular cable twangs and metal clangs. The sound was exciting, unnerving. My hours and days were usually filled with nothing but the hum and throb of the raft’s quiet engine. Even the raucous music of a possible plummet was a nice change. As we reached the twenty-third and last floor, there were several violent shudders. I looked at my companion. He wore the calm smile of foreknowledge.
I pointed a finger at him, uncapped my flask again, and took a drink. “You could have warned me that we’d miss our floor.”
“Would it have changed anything if I had? We still needed to get into the elevator. The fact that I know how the ride turns out, and the fact that you’re frightened, doesn’t remove that need.”
“Awful self-centered of you.”
“And you.” He gave me the smug grin that I knew so well.
It was a gift I hated to receive but gave so often.
At last the elevator shook to a stop. On the other side of the door’s dark window, a few flashes of lightning streaked across a bare wall. I looked up at the dial. “We’re at the penthouse.”
“Let’s have our look.”
Thunder shook the building. “We get out?” One convention rule I never broke was number seven: Stay below the third floor.
“We do.” He pulled back the gate and stepped into a dark hallway. He didn’t wait for me, and the elevator door swung shut behind him, leaving me alone.
I looked at my watch. Still time to kill before my entrance to the ballroom. Following Sober into the suite was probably what delayed me, I thought. More thunder shook the elevator. I dreaded seeing the suite. None of the versions of myself who had visited the hotel over the years had ventured above the decayed building’s second floor. There were any number of reasons not to go. The roof obviously leaked, floors were rotten, and walls and ceilings gave way without warning. Sprawling, rust-colored maps had drawn themselves on the ceiling in the entrance, the lobby, the halls. Part of the third floor ran with water an inch deep, which was why I’d made the rule prohibiting further exploration. It was dangerous.
I opened the door and followed him.
The penthouse, dark except for lightning, was littered with ghostlike shapes of furniture in sheets. I was surprised by the lack of damage to the room. My older self watched rain pelt the city, his arms crossed, by himself even though I stood behind him, and I wondered if it had really been so important that I come here with him. The moment seemed his alone.
I wondered what he might be thinking. In a flash of lightning, I spotted a mark on Sober’s wrist, a tattoo. Another flash confirmed what I worried it was: a parrot, wings stretched in flight.
I had no plans to deface my body with a picture of a parrot—rats in drag. “Why do I do that?”
His eyes fell to his own wrist and a sadness I could almost smell rolled off him. “You’ll know the moment you decide to do it yourself.” He looked up at me, sympathy in his eyes. It was worse than sympathy. It was pity. Pity for my ignorance. I felt a shameful burst of hatred for the superior position he held by having already been me, for his arrogance in pretending he’d victoriously claimed the high ground, for his assumption that aging is earning.
Sometimes the urge to strike myself was almost too much. I shook my head and pulled out my flask. I would refill it upon my dramatic entrance.
We haunted the penthouse for a few silent minutes, him watching the horizon, me pulling back sheets to reveal cheap furniture dolled up to look expensive.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
“Enjoying the view, I think,” he said. “We might be a few minutes late, but we already know what sorts of events to expect, right?” He looked at my suit. “You must be ready for the Big Entrance.”
There was no denying it to him. I blushed in the dark.
“Don’t worry. You still make it. I’m probably the reason you make it later than you thought you would.”
“Oh, of course.” I feigned comfort. “I wondered what would occupy me for . . . what? Another hour?” I watched lights twinkle through the drops of rain on the window. They quivered in the wind. All identical but separate, able to coalesce at an instant of contact. I was reminded of my separate selves downstairs.
A crash of thunder hit especially close, and Sober shifted in the dark, turned away from me. “You’ll excuse me for a moment. That’s my cue to explore the other rooms.”
As he disappeared into the dark, I watched neighborhood buildings flash in and out of sight. The city was an empty cemetery, markers over unoccupied graves. Was I really too lazy to make more trips through the recent past to see what had caused New York’s abandonment? Was I really so self-centered that I could handle only this one night? I’d seen this same lightning storm many times, but never from this height. I took a deep breath, suddenly looked forward to revisiting this moment when I became Sober, and before I exhaled, I felt guilt at having despised him for simply being older.
Thunderous echoes chased one another between the buildings. Beneath them chattered a mechanical rattle. I turned my head to listen. When I realized that the rattle came from behind me, not outside, it was too late. The elevator had descended.
Back to the elevator, tripping on furniture in the dark. Unseen glass smashed against the floor, and I felt shards break under my shoes. I stumbled through the dark hallway, felt along the walls until I found the door to the missing elevator. I held on to it, suddenly needing the support, and listened to the grinding descent. I felt angry. Worse, I felt mocked. To be abandoned, in some sort of joke. I’d never played practical jokes on myself before. There was no point. I played a joke either on a Youngster, making myself a past victim, or on an Elder, which was impossible because I could not trap memory.
As I wondered at Sober’s reasons, the elevator cables sang. Gears slowed, then stopped. I pressed my face to the elevator window and saw the car lights three floors below me. Above me, in the elevator’s main motor, rose a whine. Cables slipped, but the elevator stuck. Rather than stop, the motor groaned. The car’s lights flickered. An alarm sounded somewhere above me, a jarring bell. It started, stopped, then sounded again briefly, as if stuttering.
I called down to myself. “Hello?” There was no answer. My anger rose. “Hope you’re happy now.” No reason to leave me here, but at least I wasn’t trapped in the car with him. It occurred to me that my future self might have left me here so we wouldn’t both be stuck in the elevator. He might, in fact, have been saving the Entrance. But why not tell me this would happen? Elders loved keeping secrets. One more sign of the
Elders’ superiority issues. I dismissed the fact that I would eventually inhabit those issues. Every single one.
I yelled, “Listen, I’ll head down the stairs and get help.” Still no answer.
I looked around the hallway. My eyes had barely adjusted to the dark. Besides the penthouse entrance, there were two doors; I opened the first and reached gingerly into the absolute black depth. It was a service closet. I felt along the wall toward the other door: the stairway. Low light bounced along the walls, reflected from farther down the stairs. Hushed voices echoed and layered over one another into a chorus of whispers. I called out. “Hello?” Something flickered at my feet. I reached down and found my own multi-armed clock, same as the one pinned to my lapel. I tried to read it in the dim light. Behind me something in the elevator motor let out a spark and an echoing report like a gunshot.
I returned to the elevator. “Hello?” I called down again. Still no answer. Below, in the shaft, the elevator lights seemed farther away. Something burned. Smoke wafted from the shaft, and the motor’s whine grew louder.
“Is everything all right?” I shouted, pounding on the door. I watched the lights fall away and felt my stomach drop, as if it were I who flew upward rather than my counterpart descending. I might have shouted a silly threat. I turned back toward the stairway. Whatever low light previously lit the stairs had disappeared. I felt forward with feet and hands and located the top step. Slipping one foot to the edge of each step, I toed my way down the stairs—twelve steps to the landing—negotiated the turn, then counted steps to the next floor. Twelve again. Twelve steps, landing, twelve, landing, and so on. By the fifth floor, I was flying down the steps in the dark, counting out loud to myself as I went. My heart raced, even though I knew I would find nothing at the bottom. This convention had dozens of my selves in attendance. The one who’d deserted me would disappear into the crowd. In the dark all I had were phosphene trails of elevator lights that dropped away from me toward a single, brilliant point.
At the second floor, excited voices vibrated through the door. I tried the knob and found it locked. I hammered a fist against the gray metal. It opened, and bright hallway lights blinded me. Three silhouettes moved around me, spoke in my voice.
The one nearest me said, “Here you are. I don’t remember it taking you so long to get down those stairs.”
I shielded my eyes. “Takes a while in the dark. Had to memorize the step count.”
This one was older than me, but not by much. Shaved head, plain white dress shirt.
“We’re wasting time reminiscing.” One in a canary yellow sweater glared at me. “Is the elevator here?”
“Yes, it’s here.” This voice was far older. I was able to see now, not well, but enough to know that ahead of me, holding on to the wall for support, was a seventy-year-old man. His hair was white and cut short. He wore a simple black suit and looked like a minister. He was, of course, me. “I’m afraid it’s not good.”
The other three moved away from me and looked through the elevator grate.
“Oh, God,” said the one in the yellow sweater. Both Seventy and Screwdriver remained silent. I stayed where I was, unable to think of anything other than what I would say when Sober exited the elevator. He was taking a long time about it.
“Are you all right?” the one in the white shirt asked me.
“I need a drink,” I said. I pulled out my flask and tipped it back. When I lowered it, they were all staring at me. I held it up, almost like an offering, but none of them took it.
I asked, “What the hell is everyone staring at?”
Yellow, a whiff of that same pity that Sober had around him, said, “You haven’t seen this yet.”
I didn’t want to see. I walked toward him.
On the elevator floor lay Sober. His eyes were open, legs crumpled beneath him and his arms awkwardly twisted. A gash ran across his right temple.
I covered my mouth and felt a jolt run up my spine. I needed to sit down. More important, I needed more drink. Murmurs from the others:
“Open the grate.”
The one in the white shirt, head shaved and irregular stubble across his chin, pulled a screwdriver from his pocket and worked at the gate’s latch. His eyes looked dulled, as if he could take in only so much and that limit had been reached long ago.
Seventy held out a hand. “He’s dead. We all remember too well.”
“That’s not possible.”
The old man’s rheumy eyes watered at me. “Welcome to the secret club of the convention, boy. Now you know. This is where you die.”
The hall shrank to a circle of light only as big as a watch face, and I went deaf for a moment. The others waited.
“How can he be dead?”
Seventy cleared his throat, shifted his cane from hand to hand. “That’s the problem. How. We don’t—”
“Don’t say you don’t know. I’ll just come back early and watch the corners, the penthouse. We were in the penthouse.” Screwdriver finally popped the latch. “We know where you were. We’ve watched it. He gets in the elevator, alone and alive.”
Yellow, still leaning on the wall, eyes ricocheting back and forth, barely withheld a laugh. “You watched it? When? I never watched anything.”
“Since past you, obviously.” Seventy studied my face.
“We’ve tried watching the elevator, the penthouse. Each time he just climbs in, no problems. It’s down here we find him dead. Short of getting into the elevator with him, we don’t know what to do, and if we do that . . .”
I nodded. I’d learned the hard way about the uselessness of interrupting past events. I said, “So you all . . . all the Elders . . .”
Seventy nodded. “Everyone older than you knows. And we’re all fucking stumped.”
Screwdriver started to lift the Body. “And it’s up to you.”
“What?” I decided I hadn’t heard him right.
Seventy waved a hand. “Put that body down. We haven’t shown him everything yet.” He smiled sadly at me. “Listen. It’s on you now. You’ve got to look into this.”
“Because he’s your next visit here. We haven’t been able to figure this out. And if you don’t . . .”
We all looked down at the Body. His beard looked more unruly than I recalled, and his face was dirtier than I could imagine myself becoming. He looked haggard and used up in a way that he hadn’t when he’d been Sober.
Seventy nodded. “We’ll help. But this is, at a certain point . . .”
“My problem.” I nodded back.
Screwdriver said to Seventy, “Do you want to show him?”
Yellow scowled. “Show him what?”
Seventy nodded. “Yeah, go ahead.”
As Yellow and I waited in confusion, Screwdriver knelt beside the Body and pulled back his shirt. A deep purpleblack bruise beneath his ribs stared at me. Wide splatters of blackish blood dried around it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Seventy yawned. “Hematoma. He may have fallen or been pushed. Beaten. Returned to the elevator, somehow, while it descended. The gash on his temple is a ruse. Someone tried to play us for fools.”
I pointed at the bruise but didn’t know what to say about it. It seemed to grow as I looked at it. My hand dropped. “One of us is trying to fool us?”
Seventy nodded. “Either we’re fools for thinking they meant to trick us or he, whoever he is, is for thinking it would work.”
Yellow said, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yes it does,” Screwdriver said, standing again, hands in pockets and eyes on the Body. “But it will take you about six months to realize it.”
Yellow’s eyes sparked, then clouded over. “You would know.” This was the ultimate Youngster putdown, often taking the place of an ill-advised “fuck you.”
Screwdriver grinned hollowly. “Show some respect.” His eyes never left the Body.
We stood in a loose ring near the elevator door and watched the Body as if he might sit up and tell us what had happened. His expensive vest looked more wrinkled than I’d remembered, his clothes more ill-fitting than dapper. He seemed poorly dressed, in fact. The single light of the elevator began to spark and blink. I heard water trickle from somewhere above the car, probably from a leak at the top of the shaft. Decay blossoms without our efforts. The electrical short emitted an insect buzz and a smoky copper smell. Seventy and Screwdriver looked at me and smiled. I tried hard not to show emotion at the convention—both Elders and Youngsters interpreted emotion as weakness—but these two smiled without hesitation, and I feared and admired it.
Seventy, eyes hectic in the strobing light, said, “I don’t envy your pursuit. If you fail, I’ll never know, as I just won’t be. But you’ll know, because you’ll end up lying here in this filthy elevator.”
Meet the Author
Sean Ferrell's fiction has appeared in journals such as Electric Literature's "The Outlet" and The Adirondack Review. His short story "Building an Elephant" won The Fulton Prize. His debut novel, Numb, was described as "eye catching," "daring" and "offbeat." He lives and works, in no particular order, in New York City.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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When I picked up NUMB, Sean Ferrell’s debut novel, I had no idea what a treat was in store for me. In much the same way, MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT was a complete surprise to me in all the best ways. I knew going in that it was about time travel, but as with all great works of fiction, it’s not really about time travel. I’m almost afraid to say much of anything substantial in this review for fear of unwrapping your gift instead of allowing you to peel the tape off yourselves. MAN IN THE EMPTY SUIT follows many incarnations of the same character—from his youth to his old age—as they meet once a year in the same time/place to celebrate their birthday. Birthdays mean little, as you might imagine, when linear time no longer constricts you, but our main character is a thoughtful man. Instead of sharing his glowing triumph with the world he chooses to spend his time traveling along, but knowing all the versions of the man he has been and will be creates an intricate self-loathing. The year he supposes will be his best, based on observations over many years, arrives with all kinds of surprises…including the first guess at his private party that’s not, well, himself. Then there’s the slight issue that the man one year older than he has been murdered, and if he can’t figure out what happens between now and then, the rest of his life will disappear. We follow the man as he pursues the answers to his own mystery—along with the mysteries we’re all hoping to solve: what have we learned, who will we be, and is it possible to change our chartered course once we’re already on the tracks. I would recommend this thoughtful novel without hesitation to anyone who enjoys a delightful combination of mind bending plot twists and thoughtful ruminations on the lives we lead…and the ones we want to lead.
Thus is very good and has your brain twisting all over the place. The 'answer' does seem like the modt logical answer, having given it some thought, though i was hoping for a different answer. Also: a bit sad. :(
This is trippy book, but it’s a great read. The idea that a party is attended every year by different versions of yourself can be staggering. Ferrell spins a web of lies, deceit, and self-loathing, sprinkles it with intelligent humor and wit, a dash of love and loss, and presents it to the reader on a silver platter. The main character has no name, which allows the reader to insert his or herself into the story with ease. Even the love interest has more than one name, making it difficult to pin her down. This is a complicated story that doesn’t end where you think it will, which makes it all the more intriguing. If you like to be challenged, this is a book for you.
This book is a lot different than most books because the main character is never given a name. He is just known as "the suit." As some point of his life he invented the raft, which allows him to travel through time. On every birthday, he travels to the year 2071, which is 100 years after his birth year. There he has a party at a New York hotel with only different versions of himself as the guests. The suit is not normally a very sociable person, so who better to have a party with than himself (or selves). The suit has different names for the different ages of himself such as the inventor, screwdriver, the nose and seventy. This is how he distinguishes himself as each age. The book also has a list of rules that the suit insists on always following one of the main things is to never let a younger version of himself know what will happen. The suit arrives at the party on his 39th birthday and all of a sudden, things are different from his last visit including having young versions of himself that shouldn't be there and there is a mysterious woman named Lily. The rest of the book involves the suit trying to solve a mystery that will befall his 40 year old self and to learn the truth behind the mysterious Lily and to figure out who is responsible for everything. Though the book sounds interesting I had several problems with it. First it is written in a way that makes it difficult to follow until the reader is well into the story. The book also drags in several places. Lastly, there are several unexplained paradoxes. The future New York is interesting but there is virtually no technology discussed that doesn't exist now. If the book weren't so slow in parts, I would try rereading it to see if I could get better answers for my confusion. I give this book a little more than two and a half stars