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Suspicious minds

A Person of Interest A Novel; Susan Choi; Viking: 356 pp., $24.95

February 03, 2008|Marisa Silver | Marisa Silver is author of the short-story collection "Babe in Paradise" and the novel "No Direction Home." Her new novel, "The God of War," will be published in April.

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.

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