Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, February 24, 2008
A PERSON OF INTEREST
By Susan Choi
Viking. 356 pp. $24.95
Susan Choi looks for essential American characters in the most peculiar places. Five years ago, she wrote a novel about Patty Hearst called American Woman that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and now she's back with A Person of Interest, a piercing story about the Unabomber that's one of the most remarkable novels to have emerged from our age of terror. American Woman followed the Hearst case closely, but Choi's success this time has nothing to do with fidelity to the historical record; indeed, the anti-technology assassin, Ted Kaczynski, and the criminal investigation to stop him comprise only a small, late part of this novel. Instead, what makes A Person of Interest so brilliant and unsettling is Choi's creation of an old man who becomes an object of suspicion.
Twice divorced, friendless, the man known only as Dr. Lee is an embittered math professor at a mediocre university somewhere in the Midwest. He seems no more endearing than Emma Bovary or Humbert Humbert, but he's just as mesmerizing. In his youth, he emigrated from a repressive Asian country (never specified), and now with his slightly odd, distinctly unfriendly demeanor, he scratches at the xenophobia lying beneath our liberal sensibilities. But in the depths of Lee's peculiar foreignness, Choi touches something universal and raw and irresistibly sympathetic. Her merciless knowledge of him, her sardonic analysis of his anxiety, his shame and his compulsive jealousy result in a cringe-inducing performance, a tour de force that would cause Flaubert to cry out, "Dr. Lee, c'est moi!"
The novel opens with an explosion in the office next to Lee that's so powerful it knocks him off his chair. As he sits crumpled on the floor waiting for paramedics to arrive, he knows it must have been a package bomb. "The explosion had not breached the wall," Choi writes. "The work it had wrought on the far side was left for Lee to imagine, as he felt the force wash over him, felt his heart quail, and felt himself briefly thinking, Oh, good."
The incinerated victim next door is Dr. Hendley, a young hot-shot computer scientist, "an exemplar of a new breed of professor, worldly, engaged, more likely to publish in a magazine full of ads for a mysterious item called PlayStation than in a moribund university quarterly, read only by the frail, graying men (and rare woman) whose work was included that month." Lee has always found Hendley's popularity -- with the students, other faculty members, even the world at large -- annoying, but until the explosion, he'd never realized the intensity of his hatred. Lee "was deep in disgusted reflection on his own pettiness when the bomb squad found him, but, unsurprisingly, they had assumed he was simply in shock."
So begins a story of ever increasing self-consciousness and self-loathing. Step by step, Choi follows Lee through the horrible days after the bombing in a narrative voice that manages to channel his bile while also satirizing it with blistering commentary. At the hospital where reporters are waiting for word of Hendley's condition, Lee delivers a rousing condemnation of the attack, but he finds the media glare and his colleagues' sympathy deeply irritating. Among other things, he's infuriated by the realization that he's not important enough to merit assassination.
Conflicted and disturbed by his own pettiness, he avoids the grief counselors, the public expressions of remorse, the lachrymose well-wishers, but his remoteness only makes him seem more peculiar, then suspicious. Try as he might -- "in a furnace of fury and shame" -- he just can't behave in the way he knows people want him to. "His perpetual crime," Choi writes, "was the failure to keep up appearances."
In the middle of this ordeal, he receives a taunting letter from an old acquaintance named Gaither, an evangelical Christian he hasn't seen since they were graduate students together. At this point, Choi breaks the story along two different timelines: The letter draws Lee's mind back to those early years in America and his broken friendship with Gaither. The more he ruminates on their hurt feelings, the more convinced he becomes that his old friend is the assassin and that the bomb Hendley opened was, in fact, intended for him. In the claustrophobic atmosphere of Lee's paranoia, it's a conclusion he finds at once terrifying and flattering. (Choi recently told a reporter that her own father, also a mathematician, went to graduate shool with Ted Kaczynski in the '60s.)
Meanwhile, Lee's increasingly nervous behavior attracts the attention of the FBI, which considers him "a person of interest." Of course, that added scrutiny, magnified by his neighbors' eagerness to ostracize him (or worse), only exaggerates his peculiarity. (Readers may be reminded of the devastating investigation of Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee.) Choi notes coolly that Lee suffers from "the immigrant's sense of hopeless illegitimacy and impending exposure." But I don't care if your family came over on the Mayflower -- only the most pathologically overconfident person could read these flawless scenes without resonating to Lee's anxiety.
Amid the increasingly aggressive FBI investigation, some of the long flashbacks to Lee's graduate school years and his failed marriages feel like unneeded detours, but ultimately the two story lines play off each other in the most fascinating ways. The sweaty pace of the contemporary thriller complements the quiet tragedy of the older, domestic drama, and through it all runs Choi's scathing, illuminating scrutiny.
The novel's concluding scenes mark a surprising, not entirely successful shift. The plot, so careful and precise up to this point, grows oddly rushed and surreal: The climax passes in an unlikely, blurry scene. What's more strange, though, is the tempering of Choi's tone. Her mordant voice falls away, and for the remaining pages Lee is described by a gentle, even sentimental narrator whose voice is difficult to square with the bulk of the novel's steely wit. Perhaps Choi is merely showing a little mercy after holding her antihero on the end of a pin for so many pages, but it seems like a failure of nerve or the intervention of those Hollywood bosses who order up endings in response to preview questionnaires. No matter -- something to argue about with the book club. Choi remains, more than ever, a writer of interest. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.