Susan Choi’s new novel, A Person of Interest, has some elements of a thriller, but the characters are much more fully drawn than your average potboiler. As with her earlier novel, American Woman, which drew from the Patty Hearst story, she uses real events to inspire her fictional characters. This time, she takes a page from both the Unabomber story and the Wen Ho Lee espionage trial to concoct a story whose main character is Lee (we never learn his first name), a solitary Asian immigrant. Lee is a tenured mathematics professor at an undistinguished Midwestern university. His office is next door to Hendley, the latest “Brain Bomber” victim, a young, brilliant, and widely loved chair of the computer science department. In contrast to Hendley, Professor Lee’s brusque manner and obsessively private nature keep him from being popular with his students, and eventually make him a suspect. Here, Choi describes Lee in his office, thinking about his students:
They mostly wanted teachers who acted like pals — this was why they’d loved Hendley — but they didn’t scorn Lee quite as much, he felt sure, as they did the other professors his age, the old men with their elbow patched tweeds, and their stay-at-home wives who made cookies and tea for the very few students who still bothered to seek professorial counsel.
Then again, there were times he was forced to believe the exact opposite: that his students had neither respect nor affection for him. He sat idle during his twice-weekly office hours, as did most of his aged colleagues, a crisp yellow pad squared before him on his clean desk, a Montblanc fountain pen with black ink in his hand — he’d always worked in black ink, an affectation he’d suffered since youth. A sign of arrogance, his first wife might have said; of humility, he might have parried. Ink kept one’s errors on record. But whatever his Montblanc denoted, there were fewer and fewer to give their opinions. His office hours were an empty detention, unvisited and unproductive for him, no matter how he pretended. Each afternoon he would carefully stand the door open twelve inches, or the width someone needed to duck in casually and say hi; not wide open, as if in eager anticipation, and not merely slightly ajar, as if he begrudged this time for his students. He didn’t; he sat poised on the brink of the legal pad, seemingly lost in his putative thoughts, the Montblanc in his fingers. Each set of footsteps he heard in the hallway launched him on a theatrical scratching of pen upon notepad; he would feel his face stiffen with self-consciousness and will his eyes not to dart toward the door. The footsteps were almost never for him. The rare occasions they were, he was always the same, as if reluctantly drawn from the pool of deep thought: “Ah,” he would say, tempering his forbidding absorption with a lift of the eyebrows. But most often, as he twitched with unsure expectation, the footsteps passed his office — his door too little open for him to see who it was — and instead stopped at Hendley’s next door. There would already be lively murmur of whispers, students sprawled on the floor of the hall with their backpacks, awaiting their turns. And through the wall, the not-quite-comprehensible but very audible rumble of Hendley himself, holding forth, and a student’s unself-conscious laughter, punctuated by the robotic bleeps and the primitive honks Hendley’s two huge computers gave off.
Choi makes Lee a believably exasperating yet somehow sympathetic character. (One review I read said that Choi’s father, like Lee, did actually have an office next to a Unabomber victim, so I can’t help wondering how much Lee is like her father). The story kept me intensely interested in how things would come out for Lee as much as in finding out the identity of the Brain Bomber. There are side trips into other characters’ lives, into Lee’s failed marriages, and even a few brief episodes from his life in Korea before he immigrated, none of which seem to stall the momentum of the story. Lee’s interactions with Jim Morrison, the FBI agent who alternately suspects and trusts Lee add suspense and sometimes comic relief. The ending is hopeful and satisfying without seeming too different in tone from the rest of this mostly dark story.