Review by New York Times Review
YEARS ago, I asked a class I was teaching to read the first chapters of Balzac's "Eugenie Grandet" and "A Flag for Sunrise," by Robert Stone. The Balzac begins with a leisurely tour of a provincial town, while, near the start of the Stone, a hippie backpacker's corpse shows up in the freezer of an army lieutenant in a restive Central American country. I suggested to my students that the comparison might reflect one difference between 19th and 20thcentury fiction. Perhaps these contrasting openings had something to do with the way our attention spans have been altered for better or worse by the bright gratifications of movies and the rhythm of television, which has schooled us to expect the "hook" before the first commercial. Reading "A Person of Interest," it occurred to me that if we're lucky, Susan Choi's new book may turn out to be a prototypical 21stcentury novel, combining the unhurried pleasures of certain classics with the jittery tensions of more recent fiction. The plot begins with the shock of the new or at least the sort of commotion we used to hear about, all too often, when the Unabomber was waging his grisly war against teachers of engineering and hapless electronicsstore owners. In the first chapter, a bomb explodes, killing a popular professor of computer science, a rising star in his field who has briefly agreed to shed his light on a thirdrate college. Immediately, we find ourselves in the mind of one of the murdered man's colleagues, a mathematics professor named Lee. And gradually the pace slows down to that of a novel from an earlier era as Lee (neither the reader nor the novel's characters ever know him as anything but Lee or Professor Lee) reflects on his life at a level of depth we might expect to find in one of George Eliot's vicarages. Choi allows us to become intimately familiar with Lee, even as she keeps him at the precise distance he himself might choose to maintain. We are told that he is Asianborn, but not much more about the country he comes from, except for a few essentials: memories of a cyclone fence topped with barbed wire, the ocean never far away. All we need to hear about his disastrous second marriage is what he's left with after it's over: astonishment at the avidity with which his wife took everything that could be taken in a divorce. His more appealing and deeply loved but no less unsuitable first wife was the spouse of a graduateschool colleague whom she abandoned for Lee. She has since died, fraying Lee's relationship with their grown daughter, a quixotic and somewhat goofy environmental activist from whom he receives the occasional postcard. Lee acknowledges the jealousy and resentment he'd felt for the likable, innocent victim of the mailbomb attack, an ill will he'd never quite registered until he heard the detonation. But even as Lee is monitoring his own unacceptable response, Choi's readers may find themselves considering the odd happiness with which they look forward to spending hundreds of pages in the company of this cranky old man. Lonely, alcoholic, slovenly, Lee leads so pallid and constricted an existence that it's not surprising he spends so much time revisiting the past especially the adulterous courtship that preceded his first marriage. He's not merely recalling a more passionate period in his life, he's following an instinct (soon to be confirmed by events) that the crime against his colleague has something to do with him, and with that era. As Lee is drawn into the sensational publicity surrounding the investigation of the murder, the F.B.I., agent assigned to his case begins to suspect that the professor's relation to the bombing might be more than accidental. Reading about Lee's metamorphosis from innocent bystander to "person of interest," we are reminded of the grieving families of kidnap and murder victims judged guilty by the public for their failure to display emotion in the most banal and obvious ways. It seems less predictable than inevitable that all the qualities we come to associate with Lee his stiffness, his embarrassment, his volatile mix of pride and timidity begin to strike those around him as evidence of wrongdoing. Thematically, "A Person of Interest" echoes Choi's previous novel, "American Woman," based loosely on the events surrounding the abduction of Patty Hearst. Both books testify to the appalling ease with which the past can catch up with and then overtake us. Both say something about what it means to live in a society that is simultaneously tolerant and suspicious, inclusive and all too ready to punish its citizens for the crime of being their authentic selves. Both succeed in making us feel deeply for characters who are profoundly flawed. More important, both novels are beautifully written. Choi's precise, cadenced prose alternates between plainspokenness and lyrical dazzle. Her long, complex sentences compel us to follow wherever they go, and to admire the quiet authority, at once soothing and gripping, with which they arrive there. Choi can get impressive mileage out of the most minor detail: "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 would think they'd seen him." She can also compress masses of information into a single line of dialogue when the wife of a devout churchgoer invites Lee to visit her at 9:30 on Sunday morning, or when an F.B.I., agent, interviewing Lee, speculates about why Asians are considered "immune" to the polygraph test. IN the book's final section, a surprising turn in the action shows how narrowly focused Lee's vision of the past has been. And when it begins to seem that the criminal investigation might progress beyond the tormenting of an innocent professor, the plot follows the promptings an anonymous letter, a series of false leads that have been tugging it in the direction of a psychological thriller. The idea that the mystery might have a solution gives the narrative a satisfying shape; it's also gratifying to see Lee offered the most tentative handshake of redemptive human connection. And yet the story's resolution also makes us realize that the plot was never what kept us reading this novel so intently. The question of who did it is ultimately less compelling than the character who clearly didn't. We read "A Person of Interest" for one of the best reasons to read any fiction: to transcend the limitations of our own lives, to find out what it's like to be someone else, to recognize unmistakable aspects of ourselves staring back at us from the portrait of a stranger. Francine Prose's most recent book is "Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them." Susan Choi's new novel lays bare an America that is simultaneously tolerant and suspicious.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [October 27, 2009]