A bomb explodes in the office of a popular math professor at a Midwestern college. The event is ultimately linked to similar acts of terror at other universities around the country, and the bomber sends out an impassioned, deeply disturbed mea culpa about the evils of modern technology.
It's an unsettlingly familiar story, and, as with the Patty Hearst saga in her previous novel, "American Woman," the gifted and original Susan Choi uses this particularly contemporary malignancy as the backbone of her new novel, "A Person of Interest."
Whereas many novelists employing sensational devices upon which to hang a plot fail to reveal much more than we already know from having read the newspapers and chatting around the water cooler, Choi deftly turns our gaze away from the obvious and takes us on a complicated and revealing journey into the alienated heart of modern American life. With nuance, psychological acuity and pitch-perfect writing, she tells the large-canvas story of paranoia in the age of terror and the smaller (but no less important) story of the cost of failed dreams and the damage we do to one another in the name of love.
Choi's focus is not on the perpetrator of the terror or his victim but on a bit player in the drama -- one who at first glance seems beside the point. Lee, Choi's protagonist, is the victim's colleague -- a 65-year-old math professor and Asian immigrant who is reaching the end of an undistinguished career at a second-rate college.
Professor Lee (we never learn his first name) is a socially awkward man, given to blurting out uncomfortable truths at inopportune moments, and his seething emotions are buried beneath a lifetime of repression. Having failed at two marriages, he lives alone in a faceless suburban development, in a house he's done nothing to personalize. Most of the rooms are empty of furniture. He eats the same meal nearly every night, at his desk. He is estranged from his only daughter and seems to have no relationships outside of superficial connections to his departmental colleagues. He is a disappointed, detached man, full of regret and anger.
In mining the core of this character, which Choi does masterfully, she writes that Lee "felt fierce love for the naive and arrogant young man he'd been, and sometimes, in his immigrant life, this love almost seemed to reanimate that former self, so that to outsiders he seemed both arrogant and remarkably blind to his own circumstances. They thought he believed in himself as an exception, whatever the case, but the truth was exactly the opposite: Lee knew that his exceptional status was irrecoverably lost." He is an enigma we cannot turn away from.
When the bomb explodes, Lee is working in the office next door. After recovering from the shock, his first thought is, "Oh, good" -- and we are hooked. It turns out that much of Lee's sense of personal and professional failure centers on the victim of the bombing, Richard Hendley, a young, charismatic professor whose star is on the rise. While students line the hallway in hopes of a few precious moments with this academic demigod, Lee waits, like a wallflower, in his own office for the students who never appear. But Lee's attitude toward his co-worker runs deeper than professional jealousy; as Choi peels back the layers of his psyche, we see into the alienated and wounded heart of this flawed man. The bomb shatters not just the next-door office but also the fragile armor Lee has worn to cover up a complicated past. His colleague is killed. Lee's soul is nearly destroyed.
With a mystery writer's flair for suspense, Choi juxtaposes flashbacks of Lee's early years as an immigrant and graduate student with the FBI investigation of the bombing, interleaving seemingly random events until we realize how Lee's past, both personal and academic, has come to bear on his present. As a graduate student hobbled by his immigrant's sense of separateness, Lee was befriended by a kind-hearted fellow student named Lewis Gaither, an evangelical Christian whose "peculiarly gentle, ironical manner of speech was his most signal asset, the winking blade that allowed for his faith to be tolerable." (Choi's elegant identification of the character's nub is matched by her cunning setting up of the novel's entire cast, all of whom act in ways that defy our expectations and are suspect in one way or another.) Upon meeting Gaither's young wife, Aileen, Lee fell in love and eventually stole her away from his friend, rupturing their bond.
After the bombing, Lee receives a mysterious letter and immediately suspects that it's from Gaither, that Gaither is the bomber and that the act of terrorism was in fact one of belated vengeance, meant for Lee. The FBI is not convinced, and Lee soon becomes the eponymous "person of interest." He is questioned and his house is searched; he's pursued by the hungry media and condemned by a fearful public. Frantically, he tries to convince the likable but no-nonsense agent assigned to the case of his innocence and Gaither's culpability but succeeds only in making himself more of an outcast. Choi writes in a claustrophobic, close, third-person voice, creating a dyspeptic character so narrowly focused on himself and his miseries that we begin to suspect him ourselves, and drawing us into the mind of a loner beset by paranoid delusion.
The novel does falter occasionally. Aileen, the linchpin of the drama, remains opaque; a heartbreaking decision she makes is less effective than it should be. Additionally, Choi diverts our attention from the main drama of the story in the novel's penultimate section, asking us to commit to a heretofore unmet character. This late twist deflates the tension she has so meticulously built and leads to a sentimental denouement that feels lightweight for a plot that has so admirably skirted sentimentality and resisted easy answers.
But these weaknesses do not seriously detract from this intellectually and emotionally satisfying novel. Choi juggles suspense and psychological drama with an acrobatic dexterity, and in Lee she has invented a memorable literary character whose quest for connection and validation shines a light on alienation in the Age of Terror.