The paradox of time travel

Friday, February 8, 2013

"The Man in the Empty Suit," by Sean Ferrell. Soho Press, 320 pp. $24.95

Every year, on his birthday, the time traveler travels to a hotel where he sits with the other ages of himself and drinks 12-year-old scotch. Every year, when the party is already in full swing, this man sees a version of himself walk in late, looking dapper in an elegant suit.

This year is the year of the suit, his 39th birthday, and he has been waiting for this moment. He gets dressed and goes to the hotel, ready for his entrance. On his way in, however, he gets distracted by himself from six months later, who leads him up to the penthouse of this hotel and then leaves him alone there, in the dark. The next time this traveler sees him, he's dead in the elevator with a gunshot wound to the head.

This time traveler has the next six months to find out what happened, or he will die and all of the versions of himself that exist after this moment will cease to exist as well. He has to figure out who shot him and how the older men are still around, but he has to do so without distracting the younger versions of himself that are simply there to have a good time.

"The Man in the Empty Suit" is a novel unlike any any other I've read. There is only one technical character, though he manifests in several ages, creating several levels of personality. Each character is named from an identifier: The 70-year-old man is Seventy; the man in the yellow sweater is Yellow; and the drunkest of the group is The Drunk.

This novel exists primarily through a series of paradoxes. Each move the time traveler makes may not necessarily affect his own situation, but it affects the situations of his younger selves. Though he has a bump on his nose, a reminder of the accident that broke it several years ago at this party, by moving a plate he is able to prevent the accident, thereby preventing the nose of his younger self to break. He still, however, retains the bump.

The time travel convention has 15 rules, clearly stated at the beginning of the story. Among them are lines such as "No guests," "Stay below the third floor," "Never reveal the future" and "Don't come back until you've aged a full year." Yet the man that dies is only six months older than the present time traveler and he goes up to the penthouse as if it's second nature for him to do so.

"The Man in the Empty Suit" is intriguing; it handles time 3travel in a very different way, and it doesn't try to explain the reasoning. While it may be confusing trying to separate the separate ages of this one man, the uniqueness of his situation sets it apart from others and makes it worthwhile to read.

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