A Person of Interest - Susan Choi

In this scene Lee is, as in every scene of his life prior and subsequent, a novelty, but the novelty of his novelty here is how well people like him. They might see him as an anomaly a suburban Yul Brynner this time with his vague provenance and his careful English, but they also see a devoted father, and they embrace him.

Professor Lee is a mathematics professor at a small Midwestern college (the ambiguous "U of I") where nothing ever happens. His colleague, Rick Hendley, is a younger hotshot brought in to renew the department by introducing some sort of computer-related things which Lee doesn't understand at all. Hendley's popularity irritates him, particularly because he can hear, from his office next door, all the students lined up to visit Hendley during office hours while he sits alone with his door open at a precise angle: not too wide so as to seem overeager, but not too narrow so as to appear unavailable. When Hendley receives a mail bomb, Lee is secretly sort of glad; but then he quickly becomes a "person of interest" in the investigation and his life begins to unravel.

Choi drew heavily from her father's life in writing this story, which mirrors the Unabomber (who went to graduate school with her father). But it's also a dramatic picture of somebody who, although innocent of the bombing, makes himself a suspicious character to the FBI because of his own pettiness and old rivalries. In some sense it's a whodunnit, but it's more a character study of Lee himself, and the way his perceptions of the people in his life shift and change.

The writing tends towards long rambling sentences which I had trouble parsing at times. It reflects the way people talk sometimes, interrupting themselves in the middle of a sentence, and then picking up the train of thought much later; but despite this I sometimes found myself going back to figure out what exactly was dropped and picked up again. Choi's vocabulary is also a little odd at times; a few uncommon terms ("anodyne," "squired," "prefatory") were used more than once within a few pages of each other, as if Choi had come across a wonderful word she wanted to use, and then forgot that she'd already used it. Another thing I'd noticed was that Lee's specific ethnicity remained a mystery to me for quite a while: it's a given that he's Asian, but more than that I was never entirely sure. (One review I saw said "Chinese" but then Lee speaks fluent Japanese and Chinese is never mentioned.) His ex-wife, Aileen, is described as beautiful but without details, and for a while I wondered whether she, too, was Asian or not.

Choi also manages to make some characters loom large in the book despite their absence. Lee's daughter Esther is talked about frequently, but she only has one or two lines of dialogue in the entire book. Lee's ex-wife Aileen also has an enormous presence in the book, but we only encounter her in flashbacks since at the time of the story she was already dead. The transitions in time are fluid, and we move between the present and Lee's grad-school days without much warning. Various things trigger memories for Lee, and suddenly we find ourselves reliving past moments.

It's an engaging book which really gets inside the head of what could be a very unsympathetic character. We understand, even as suspicions about him are building, his misinterpretation of the situation and surprise when he discovers he's a person of interest. I was also fascinated to follow Lee's train of thought as he attempted to figure out who the "Brain Bomber" was and convince the FBI that he was telling them the truth. Not a very uplifting story, but a compelling one.

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 03, 2008 | Comments (0)


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