Like her fictionalized retelling of the Patty Hearst story in 2004′s American Woman, Susan Choi’s excellent new novel centers on the explosive and infamous entrance of terror and suspicion into unlikely quarters. A math professor at a midwestern state school — referred to only by his last name, Lee — is thrown from his desk by a mail bomb that kills the talented and charismatic computer scientist in the neighboring office. We know from the outset that Lee is innocent. The perpetrator, we learn much later, is in fact an intellectual anti-technology obsessive guilty of numerous bombings and reminiscent of the so-called Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.
But when the FBI grows suspicious of Lee, the media and his colleagues follow suit, and their readiness to believe he is implicated falls over him like a heavy cloak. This piecemeal siege carries echoes of the Wen Ho Lee affair, for Choi’s Lee, too, is foreign born and thus subject at times to special scrutiny. But Choi does not lean heavily on the issue, and this is not a typical immigrant novel. We hear little of Lee’s homeland — barbed-wire fences at the oceanfront, another bombing witnessed by Lee, a lack of personal freedom. Choi writes, “Lee really had closed the door not just on native country and language and culture but on kin, all of them, said good-bye to all that and stepped over a threshold of ocean to never look back.”
Nor is the university bomber’s preoccupation with the perils of technology a central concern; this is surprising, since Choi delved deeply and skillfully into the motives of the Symbionese Liberation Army and Hearst herself in American Woman. In A Person of Interest, the invasion of privacy and blame that Lee endures during the investigation forms the spine of the plot, setting in motion another storyline, one that begins long before the explosion. In each storyline it is the question of guilt and its many kinds and degrees that most interests Choi — and her subtle exploration of the interplay between these narratives gives the book its considerable power. While Lee is in no way responsible for the killing, neither does he get away clean in the reckoning of the novel. A mysterious letter Lee receives just after the bombing says, “There’s a reason my arrow grazed you,” and we understand that the “arrow” symbolizes not only the act of violence but also the pointed finger of suspicion and shame. One can be targeted in multiple ways, and the impressions of others, mistaken or otherwise, can be wielded like a weapon.
The hunt for the “Brain Bomber” is carried out in parallel by Lee and the FBI, since Lee is led down the path of pursuit by that first elliptical letter and then another, both received from bogus return addresses. Choi excels here, in an intricately plotted book, at withholding information, creating a palpable curiosity that propels the story. Lee, an intelligent but brusque and sometimes boorish man, is very poor at sensing and managing the negative attention he draws on himself, and his obtuse missteps and foolish evasions of the FBI are not always credible. His erratic behavior, though, is largely driven by those letters, and we come to understand just what a Pandora’s box they represent for Lee as Choi unfolds his fraught and half-buried past, littered with two failed marriages and a once-bitter rivalry over a woman and her child.
The novel’s best sections are those flashbacks that chart this bitter love triangle and the lasting cross-currents of its consequences. The portrayals of the characters are believable and above all humane, and the push and pull of our genuine empathy ratchets up the dramatic stakes. As in American Woman, Choi writes with delicacy and care in descriptive passages, and even more so in charting the turns that take place in conversations both real and interior — the changes of mind, the shift of alliances, the sleights of hand perpetrated against both self and other. Here Lee discusses the wishes of his dying ex-wife with her sister, Nora, who is crying:
“What do you think?” Lee asked, and he heard his voice betray the humble fright he thought he’d concealed in his chest. He wanted to cry, too, but he wasn’t capable of such decorous tears?. “Why hasn’t she mentioned this herself? This idea I should move to Rhode Island.”
“Afraid of you,” Nora said flatly. Then she added, “As usual.”
The reversal was so abrupt it took Lee a beat to realize there had been no reversal at all, but a misprision of his and resulting interior tumult, which he was confident Nora’s obtuseness had kept her from seeing.
Choi candidly conveys Lee’s crude temper, his lack of self-control, and his cool manner of coping with strong emotion that borders on the cold. But ultimately we are allied with him, for Choi’s complex portrait of this isolated, damaged man engenders an empathy for him — sometimes tenuous but always unbroken — that extends even to problems of his own making.
In the book’s closing section, Choi regrettably spells out too clearly Lee’s motives — “…he’d needed villainy to excuse his own ignoble acts,” for example — and the denouement is a little heavy with the freight of a drama imposed by the author. Nevertheless, A Person of Interest represents a significant achievement in a project of a very ambitious scope. The interweaving of complicated plots and relationships that could have registered as convoluted in less capable hands instead yields a narrative rich in suspense both public and private. Choi’s elegant use of language is coupled with careful thematic echoes that freshly poses a piercing question: who among us is guilty, and who among us is not?