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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."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.
"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.
In the book's closing section, Choi regrettably spells out too clearly Lee's motives -- "...he'd needed [the bomber's] 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? --Evan Hughes
Evan Hughes has written for The New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications.
It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was forced to admit to himself just how much he'd disliked him: a raw, never-mined vein of thought in an instant laid bare by the force of explosion. Of course, it was typical in his profession for diminishing elders to harbor ill-will toward their junior colleagues. But Lee, who had been tenured in his department for almost twenty-five years, felt that he was exempt from the obsolescence that infected most other professors his age. He was still capable of the harsh princeliness he'd possessed in his youth, although now he was half through his sixties, and his hair was all white. That old aristocratic hauteur would return suddenly, and his loose, dowdy trousers, always belted too high, would seem to sit on a younger man's waist. The liver spots that had come to his face would be bleached by the glare pouring forth from his eyes. His wasn't the kind of temperament spouse or child or friend had ever wanted to cleave to, but for his students it had the power to impress; like most of their peers, they found the notion of mentorship fusty. Unlike Lee in his own student days, they shunned the emeritus aura. They mostly wanted teachers who acted like pals—this was why they'd loved Hendley—but they didn't scorn Lee quite as much, he felt sure, as the other professors his age, the old men with their elbow-patched tweeds, and their stay-at-home wives who made cookies and tea for the very few students who still bothered to seek professorial counsel.
His dislike of Hendley was all the more painful to him for his ignorance of it. Had he known he might have forgiven himself his eager awkwardness in the face of Hendley's camaraderie, the oh yeses he would hear himself helplessly blurting whenever Hendley found him at their faculty coffee events, as if the past fifty years hadn't happened and he was fresh off the boat with ten phrases of English etched painstakingly in his mind. His dislike of Hendley might have prepared him somewhat, if not for what happened then at least for the dislike itself, the cold shock of his first, addled thought when he'd felt the vast fist of the detonation, like a bubble of force that had popped in his face. He'd felt his heart lurch, begin to flop in disorder and fear; he'd seen with his own eyes his wall of university-issue bookcases, the cheap metal kind with adjustable shelves, seem to ride the wall separating his office from Hendley's as if they were liquid, a wave. He had waited an endless instant, the eon between beats of his heart, for those bookcases so laden with waxy math texts to crash down in one motion and kill him, but they somehow had not. The explosion—he'd known right away it was a bomb; unlike almost all of his colleagues, he knew the feel of bombs intimately—had somehow not breached the thin wall through which, day after day, he'd heard Hendley's robust voice and his bleeping computer, and the strange gooselike yodel of Hendley's dial-up modem when it reached its objective. The explosion had not breached the wall, so that 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 bomb had arrived in a small, heavy cardboard box with the Sun Microsystems logo and address printed on it but afterwards it had been apparent to investigators, as it might have been to Hendley, had he examined the box with suspicion, that it had been reused—recycled, repurposed. Hendley had been alone in his office when he opened the box; Lee had known that Hendley was alone, would later realize that he had always been accurately and painfully aware of whether Hendley had student admirers in his office or not. The force of the explosion threw Lee from his chair, so that he found himself curled not quite under, but against the cold metal flank of his desk. For all that he'd lived through a violent and crude civil war, he'd never been that close to the heart, the hot core, of a bomb. He'd been in the vicinity of far more powerful explosives, such as left steaming holes in the ground—and of course, if he'd been as close, barely ten feet away, to any one of those bombs as he'd been to Hendley's, he would not have lived to feel Hendley's at all. But he had never been so close to a detonation, to that swift bloom of force, regardless of size, in his life.
After the explosion Lee lay curled on the floor of his office, his body pressed to his desk, his eyes closed; they weren't screwed shut in terror, just closed, as if he was taking a nap. The building's automatic sprinkler system had been activated by the blast, and now regular, faintly chemical rain sifted down upon Lee with an unending hiss. Lee did not register the disorder of noise taking form in the hallway: the running feet, toward and away; the first shattering scream. The ambulances arrived first, and then the police and the bomb squad; it was the bomb squad that found Lee, sitting up by that time, with his back to his desk, his legs straight out on the cold tile floor, his gaze riveted forward, but empty. Later, he would tell the police he had known, without doubt, that the bomb must have come in the mail. That rhythm, so deeply ingrained in Lee's being: the last mail of the day, the last light stretching shadows across the cold floor, the silence that grew more deep around him as the revelry in Hendley's office began. Loneliness, which Lee possessed in greater measure and finer grade than his colleagues—of that he was sure —made men more discerning; it made their nerves like antennae that longingly groped in the air. Lee had known the bomb had come in the mail because he had known that only an attack of mail-related scrupulosity would have kept Hendley in his office with the door shut on a spring day as warm and honey-scented as this day had been; Hendley was a lonely man too, in his way. Because the neighboring office was quiet, Lee knew Hendley must be alone; because Hendley was alone, he knew that Hendley was opening mail; because Hendley was opening mail, Lee knew it was that day's mail, freshly arrived. Then the bomb, and Lee's terrible gladness: that something was damaging Hendley, because Hendley made Lee feel even more obsolete and unloved. It had been the gross shock of realizing that he felt glad that had brought him to sitting, from being curled on the floor, and that had nailed his gaze emptily to the opposite wall. He 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.
Posted August 10, 2009
Posted June 30, 2010
No text was provided for this review.