The protagonist of Susan Choi’s stunning new novel, A Person of Interest, sleepwalks through life like someone escaped from a lost verse of “Eleanor Rigby.” A 65-year-old tenured professor of mathematics at a mediocre Midwestern university, Professor Lee, an Asian emigré whose home country is never identified, is so socially isolated as to seem anesthetized. Twice-divorced and estranged from his only child, he’s still immured in grief over the death, years earlier, of her mother, his first wife Aileen. Week after week, he sits alone at his desk during office hours, door left ajar for visitors who never appear, and listens to the parade of students in the hallway as they make their pilgrimage to his popular colleague and office neighbor, Hendley.
Younger, brighter, adept at the facile art of academic camaraderie, Hendley is the campus’s only star—chair of the computer-science division, a homesick Californian who’s “an exemplar of a new breed of professor, worldly, engaged, more likely to publish in a magazine full of ads for a mysterious item called Playstation than in a moribund university quarterly.” But Hendley’s star tragically goes nova when he opens a package bomb that kills him. The detonation throws Lee from his chair even as it blows a jagged rift in his life, a spiritual black hole through which the myriad failures and missed connections of the past come hurtling with deadly force.
Lee’s initial reaction to the explosion is: “Oh, good.” This wretched moment of schadenfreude goes unwitnessed, but exposes the unstable emotional strata beneath Lee’s detached demeanor. Lee’s inability to connect with concerned colleagues and neighbors further isolates him. After he fails to attend Hendley’s memorial service, outpourings of sympathy turn to suspicion and—when the FBI designates Lee “a person of interest” in the investigation—outright hostility.
Choi’s first novel, American Woman, was suggested by the “lost year” that followed Patty Hearst’s 1974 kidnapping. Set in 1986, A Person of Interest is similarly inspired by real events, in this case the Unabomber. This story cuts closer to home—Choi’s father, a mathematics professor, was a fellow grad student at the University of Michigan, where Unabomber Ted Kaczynski received his master’s degree and Ph.D.
Choi’s new novel chronicles not a lost year but Professor Lee’s own lost life. With regard to the bombing, readers know his innocence is never in doubt. Yet Lee is guilty of other, more personal crimes, with repercussions no less terrible and permanent for having been directed against loved ones and colleagues. His youthful affair with Aileen, the wife of a grad-student classmate, destroys her first marriage and has a devastating impact on the life of her infant son when Lee refuses to help Aileen retain custody of him. His selfish indifference to the boy’s fate undermines his own marriage to Aileen—a callousness thrown into sharper, more poignant relief by Lee’s desperately tender love for his estranged daughter Esther. These seemingly disparate events and persons gradually, chillingly converge as Lee’s decades-long inertia gives way to a frantic effort to extricate himself from the ongoing investigation, even as he attempts to determine if a resentful former colleague is the real culprit.
A Person of Interest succeeds on so many levels: as character study, as literary thriller, but most of all, as an inquest into what constitutes identity in a world where it’s not just loners like Ted Kaczynski who feel displaced and threatened by their disengagement from other people. Choi’s writing is elegant and surprisingly expansive in its descriptions of the shabby world that Lee inhabits. This is a man who imagines himself embodied in the worn-out things he owns—a second-hand oak desk, an ancient Montblanc pen, a weathered briefcase:
“On most days his briefcase hung from his hand virtually empty, but its purpose had never been as a means of conveyance. It was his keystone of self as projected by wardrobe, his version of the businessman’s tie—though, unlike the tie, which denotes a whole species, that briefcase meant Lee and was as good as his double. So that when his colleagues at school saw the briefcase perched somewhere alone, looking back they’d think they’d seen him.”
Unlike other recent novels that traffic in actual events and people (Zachary Lazar’s Sway, Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else), A Person of Interest relies less on the confluence of history and personality than it does on the illumination of a single, timeless character: Professor Lee is an everyman whose plight and moral failings could be transported to our post-9/11 world, with perhaps even more disastrous consequences.
Lee’s lifelong estrangement starts to erode in the bombing’s aftermath. The irony, of course, is that he can re-establish ordinary human contact only under the most extraordinary circumstances. The blast that goes off in the opening pages of A Person of Interest is the Big Bang that sparks unexpected rebirth and reconciliation in the void of a single life.