Innocent but inept, an emigré arouses suspicion

Email|Print| Text size + By Richard Eder
March 9, 2008

A Person of Interest
By Susan Choi
Viking, 356 pp., $24.95

At the start of "A Person of Interest," a package bomb mortally injures Professor Hendley, chairman of the computer department and star of an otherwise mediocre Midwestern university. "Oh, good" is the immediate thought of Professor Lee in the adjoining office, even as the blast knocks him off his chair.

Lee, a 70-year-old Korean who came to study in the United States and has lived here ever since, is a tenured and decidedly nonstellar mathematician. Added to his many insecurities was jealousy of Hendley's success. Even so, his reaction seems crudely simplistic.

Or it would, except that Susan Choi, among the most powerful and subtly complex of our younger writers, is engaged in a project of far greater scope, one in which that "good" is only the first step in an elaborate choreography.

The bomb blast and its link to a series of attacks on prominent scientists (mirroring the lethal terrorism of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber) provide her novel's action and setting. Its real subject is Lee himself and his 50 years of floundering in a foreign society he can neither locate nor find himself in.

It is not the comic misapprehension and self-misapprehension of Pnin, Nabokov's marvelous Russian academic in the novel of the same name. Here and in her two previous books, Choi uses her protagonists - a young Korean in "The Foreign Student" and a Japanese-American radical activist in "American Woman" - to suggest, searchingly and painfully, the United States' own foreignness.

A major part of the novel portrays Lee's life leading up to the bomb blast. It tells of his graduate-school years and his uncertain friendship with two fellow mathematics students. One, Gaither, is a fundamentalist Christian, an oddity in his field and not particularly adept in it; the other, Whitehead, is a prodigy who is snapped up by a major university and, after several years, drops from sight.

Lee's relations with both are awkward, marked in part by their own peculiarities but at least as much by his own erratic perceptions and emotions. Insecurity, shame, ambition, aggressiveness, and suspicion cloud and frustrate an underlying need to belong and be accepted. Each of his steps trips itself up.

He seduces and eventually marries Gaither's wife, Aileen, herself an original and a waif, a mix of fierceness, frailty, and flashes of sense. She is an instance of Choi's ability to create characters of no recognizable pattern, and who establish indelible patterns of their own.

There will be a divorce, Aileen's eventual death, and a daughter whom Lee cherishes until they are estranged. Choi makes these things partly a personal failure of her acerbic, disjunctive, and floundering protagonist, and more significantly a failure of cultures.

Both these failures come into play following the blast and after the sections devoted to Lee's past. Choi writes these retrospective sections in what comes to seem excessive length and detail. For quite a while she elaborates Lee more than she animates him. Once he is set in motion, though, the elaboration plays a gravely enriching part.

Lee's seemingly odd reactions to the blast and Hendley's death alienate his university colleagues. They find him cold, abrupt; his refusal to participate in grief sessions or attend a memorial service offends them. Offense turns to suspicion, rumor, and deep freeze when the FBI searches his office and demands records of his academic disputes with the dead man. Of course all this aggravates Lee's paranoid sense of isolation.

Later, when everything spins wonderfully out of control - Choi is a master of both wild spins and the aching humanity of the spun - someone will note that the ensuing ordeal stems largely from Lee's failure to wear an acceptable cultural mask. That is, to send out required signals of empathy and regret.

The ordeal itself takes on dizzying momentum. A detailed account is impossible here. Rumors that Lee is the "Brain Bomber" sweep the campus; the university asks him to suspend the rest of his semester's classes. The FBI identifies him as the "person of interest" of the title while denying he is a suspect. Television crews besiege his house; Lee barricades himself inside.

The novel's most remarkable passages are Lee's tormented exchanges with Morrison, the FBI investigator. He appears at first as persecutor and, gradually, as a savior working to establish Lee's innocence and discover - with his help, it turns out - the real Brain Bomber among the fellow graduate students of a half-century before.

The ending, a redeeming one, is all action. That it is superbly told is no surprise. That its melodrama comes out as gravely real is due to Choi's profound rendering of her protagonist's estrangement in an estranged society, and even to the slow and hard-going detail with which she has established it.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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