Monday, August 4, 2014

A Person of Interest by Susan Choi


An Asian immigrant is demonized after a terrorist bombing,

Dr. Lee, an elderly eccentric immigrant math professor at a mediocre school, witnesses a mail bombing that takes the life of a young hotshot teacher. Meanwhile, Dr. Lee receives a cryptic letter referring to the bombing as well as to the painful circumstances surrounding his first marriage. The only person who would know those things are his wife’s first husband who went on the run after their divorce. Guilty memories make Dr. Lee lie about the letter to the FBI. Lee is also tormented by thoughts of his disappeared daughter; his first wife, divorced then dead; and his second wife, who was apparently only interested in a green card and cash. When Dr. Lee becomes a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation, his public life is turned upside down as well.

I admire the ambition to write in a beautiful manner about a topical subject, like Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood. The plot of A Person of Interest relies upon a combination of the Dr. Wen Ho Lee Chinese hysteria espionage case as well the Unabomber story, and considers, among other things, how quickly and gleefully America and the media demonize the Other. In this book, the topical plot is wound together with an affecting family drama. The mystery of who mailed the bomb, apparently a backwoods egomaniacal genius, is entwined with the mystery of why Dr. Lee bombed his family life. Why is he so unhappy? Why does he drink so much? Of course this family plot is the true story, the one where the emotions are buried. Dr. Lee doesn’t understand America and doesn’t really want to understand America. He doesn’t care to understand either of his wives.

In general, the prose is consistently at a high level of excellence. There is an extended sequence about an old lawn mower and fatherhood that is just wonderful. However, the story dragged in spots and could have borne some cutting. Once you have a heavily plotted book, the plots need to be wrapped up, and as we got close to the end there was a big plot twist, after which the story started moving at warp speed.  However, because the plot points were anchored so skillfully earlier in the novel, the believability of the story didn’t disintegrate. 

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