Explosive tale

A Person of Interest

By Susan Choi

Viking, 356 pages, $24.95

It will be tempting to read Susan Choi's "A Person of Interest" as a loose fictional reimagining of circumstances surrounding the pipe-bomb career of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

And why not? From 1978 to 1995, the then-unidentified Kaczynski killed three and wounded more than 20 with his homemade bombs mostly sent through the mail, often targeting academics in mathematics and computer science. He issued a 35,000-word anti-technology manifesto that was printed by The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was living as a hermit in a small cabin in Montana when he was captured, turned in by a suspicious brother.

In Choi's novel, which begins with the mail-bombing of a computer-science professor at an unnamed Midwestern university, we learn that it is not the first such occurrence, there had been one at UCLA in 1991, and both targeted academic heavyweights (as did Kaczynski, in part, at settings including the University of California at Berkeley and Yale University). Furthermore, the individual in Choi's novel who will become known as the "Brain Bomber" writes a 35,000-word manifesto that is printed in its entirety by The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. At the level of finer detail, the Unabomber's explosive packages were rather uniquely constructed with wood, as are those made by Choi's character. There is even, late in the novel, a possibility that he (assuming it is a he) leads a monastic life in a tiny remote cabin in northern Idaho.

Despite those intentional parallels, considering "A Person of Interest" in that light alone would be doing Choi's novel an enormous disservice. It is imaginative and deeply humanistic in such textured ways that the flameout of a marriage or two or three, the ruptures between parents and children, the storms of self-regret over what is lost in life, are as concussive as anything else in its pages.

And interesting as it may be to tack from fiction back to life in looking for its imaginative roots (Choi's novel is undeniably in part a meditation on social and personal response to a context of low-scale terrorism), readers would do better to recall the cases of Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos, N.M., nuclear scientist dismissed from his job and held for nine months in solitary confinement on suspicion but not actual charges of espionage (Lee eventually received a $1.6 million settlement from the government and five media organizations for leaks that violated his privacy); and Richard Jewell, pilloried in the media for being "a focus" in the FBI investigation of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing (Jewell was cleared by the Justice Department, but not before the leaks and public innuendo had a ruinous influence on his life).

At the center of Choi's novel is the title character, a mathematics professor named Lee, an Asian immigrant who has been in America 30 years. At 65 he is an elder member of the faculty of "a midwestern state school only recently somewhat renowned, and only specifically for the computer-science branch of the math department," headed by a much younger professor named Rick Hendley. Hendley is "wire-spectacled like a John Lennon throwback," and to the envious Lee's eyes a wearer of "strange rubber sandals that closed with Velcro, and shirts you might see on a skateboarding freshman." But he is popular with students, who frequent his office and with whom he shares beer parties and games of ultimate Frisbee, and represents a newer type of academic, one more apt to write for popular magazines than for "a moribund university quarterly, read only by the frail, graying men (and rare woman) whose work was included that month."

Lee's office was next door to Hendley's, which is where the bomb goes off, and, "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." Having lived through a crude civil war in his unnamed country of origin, "he knew the feel of bombs intimately" but had never been this close to the core of a detonation. The explosion had not breached the wall the offices shared, though, and despite his shock, given his dislike of Hendley, Lee finds himself left with a "terrible gladness, " thinking, "Oh, good."

That reflexive emotional response and Lee's subsequent behavior -- driven by a combination of honesty, self-absorption and fear -- will eventually help intensify a vortex of suspicion that begins to swirl around him. Lee is more of an unwitting enabler than a causal agent in this process, but he is tripped up by hewing to his feelings and by surrendering to his more impolitic impulses. He is found by a bomb squad after the blast and whisked to a hospital. " 'Who would want to kill us?' " he asks a police officer there. " 'We're only professors. We don't do anything.' "

Leaving the hospital shaken but physically intact, Lee walks into the harsh light of TV cameras and ends up doing an interview in which he "launched into riveting, righteous invective," calling Hendley, still clinging to life, " 'one of the great thinking men of today' " whose loss would be a loss not just to " 'those of us who are his friends and colleagues, but this country.'" But Lee fails to visit Hendley in the hospital over a period of nearly three weeks, partly because he receives a cutting, condescending letter from an old graduate student colleague who had seen him on TV, a correspondence that calls up horrific former days of discord, an affair, pregnancy, divorce, the death of Lee's first wife and his distant relationship with their daughter, Esther. Preoccupied with the failures of his past, Hendley's fight for life had slipped from Lee's mind -- until Sondra, the department secretary and "self-appointed den mother," calls to say, " 'We lost him, Lee.' "

Lee, we can assume, has seldom displayed an excess of social grace; a former sister-in-law disdains his " 'disgusting temper,' " and his blunt ways insult many with whom he has contact. The letter he received leaves him brooding over two lost marriages, and frankly, he has little patience for the carryings-on at school. Thinking of the university's hastily drafted Grief Plan, a response to Hendley's death, he wonders, "Wasn't there something out of proportion, not just about the stricken solemnity of the student population but about the official solemnizations of the college itself?"

Furthermore, the sanctimonious and self-important behavior of Sondra bothers him, as does the university's sedulous campaign for calm with posters that proclaim "A Normal Day Is OK," one of which he rips down. When Sondra tries to comfort him, he snaps, " 'I'm the last person who deserves to be treated so kindly,' " an acknowledgment of his true feelings but one that will be taken out of context and return to haunt him. He skips the campus memorial to Hendley, at which the rest of the department staff had huddled in sympathy. And when FBI agents interview him about his mail, he lies about the note he had received, claiming it was from an old friend and he had thrown it away.

The gradient of odd occurrences steepens from there. The dial tone of Lee's phone seems altered. His trash barrels have been emptied early one morning, but not those of his neighbors. At the university, items in his office appear to have shifted place slightly; the same is true of his desk at home. He is asked to take a polygraph test. He is followed as he drives. In conversation with the chairman of his department, the topic of " 'wild rumors' " is raised and the chairman suggests a leave, that Lee " '[t]ake it easy. Get off campus and avoid all this nonsense.' " Eventually Lee is served with a search warrant by FBI agents accompanied by TV news crews, who capture him for broadcast again:

"The first time he'd been a Hendley-envying, rattled bomb victim transformed into selfless and eloquent hero. This second time he was even more simply himself, and turned into a criminal."

Choi's descriptive flair, the evocation of Lee's turmoil, and the reaction of colleagues and neighbors contribute to a different type of portraiture -- of her characters and American life -- than one would expect from what is in some respects a domestic-terror thriller. (This will not surprise readers of Choi's "American Woman," a tale of subversives rooted in the Symbionese Liberation Army and Patty Hearst story that shifts well off-center from that in an approach not unlike that in "A Person of Interest.") Of her main setting Choi writes, "Apart from the college, this town possessed nothing to set it apart from the rest of the Rust Belt and as a result had grown gray and enfeebled; all its young people had left or succumbed to drug use."

Hendley's death sets off, to almost stroboscopic effect, flashes of Lee's past, as mortality and his various failures play on his mind. He regrets his own stasis (a friend disappeared "into the upper echelons of reputation as he'd watched every colleague he'd ever admired, while remaining, himself, where he was"). He reviews his marriages (one lasted a decade and stemmed from an affair with the wife of a friend and graduate-student colleague, the other was a four-year fiasco) and laments his virtual non-relationship with Esther, a college dropout who occasionally leaves "falsely dutiful messages" on the phone and whose postcard a year ago "represented the sum total of Lee's understanding of his only child's life." Lee's first wife had written him a letter before they were married, something he held dear and the FBI seized. It was openly confiding, "as if describing one passion as a means of encoding another," and that is the percussive clap in "A Person of Interest," too, homeland terror by many means.

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Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of The Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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