Sunday, October 18, 2009

Book Twenty-Two: A Person of Interest by Susan Choi

Reading Susan Choi's novel American Woman made me anxious to read more. But if you are like me, approaching a second work by an author is a bit scary. Probably like a second date (though fortunately my long marriage makes that hard to remember) -- you hope those good "vibes" from the first date do not turn out to be misguided. Alas, second dates and second books are sometimes a disappointment.

Not so with Susan Choi's novels (I'm guessing the same with dates since she is married). A Person of Interest builds on the same model as American Woman where Choi adds a fictional side to a real life event. First it was the Patty Hearst story, and this time the Unabomber meets up with Wen Ho Lee who was falsely accused of espionage. But Choi is even less interested in tying into real life in this book than with American Woman. Choi's interest is in how the truth can appear to be a malleable substance, but in the end the truth appears as an objective source around which we all revolve.

I'm not sure Choi would buy into this thought, but that is how the book plays out. Her main character, Professor Lee, is an undistinguished math professor close to retiring from an undistinguished Midwest school when his "hotshot" colleague is killed by a mail bomb. Although slightly injured himself in the blast, Lee emerges as a "person of interest," as the FBI struggle to piece together the truth. As we watch this emerge we step back into Lee's graduate career, his two failed marriages, his estranged daughter, and his own sleeplike existence in life.

While the FBI try to make their theories work, and fail, Lee is brought into focus as someone who has tried to make life work the way he wants, and fails. The clearest example is the infant child his first wife has with her first husband, although she was soon after having an affair with Lee. He refuses to see this child as part of their existence and his wife allows the child to be taken by her ex-husband. Lee's reality is that the child does not exist, but of course the truth is the child does exist and Lee's attempt to alter reality fails miserably. In addition, like the FBI he cannot shake his own theory of the bombing when he discovers the person he is sure is the bomber has been dead for many years. When reality does not conform to our thinking, we try to ignore it. We attempt to define the truth, when in fact the challenge in life is to live with the truths we are faced with.

The FBI run into the same problem with handling a truth different than what they expect. Lee could work out so well as the Unabomber that they are desperate to make it work, despite the fact (truth) that Lee offers them little hope. In the end, even the Unabomber (here called the "Brain Bomber") is someone who attempts to alter reality in part by creating his own truths. This is not to imply that reality and truth are identical, but in this case the character's inability to face reality does correspond with their inability to handle truth.

It is not often I wish for more writing -- great writers are able to convey a great deal with minimum amount of exposition. However, Choi introduces some characters which would be interesting to hear more about as they interact with the story. The abandoned infant son reemerges with a new name (Mark) and the dawning realization that his past as told to him is not the truth (more examples of people, in this case Christians, trying to alter the truth and failing). He is introduced and she creates as strong storyline and character with him, but the sudden ending leaves more unanswered questions. The same goes for Lee's estranged daughter who appears on the last page with a wave of hello at the airport. But this need for more is not just a prurient interest in how these characters turn out. All of these characters are now on a search for truth and seeing more of that journey would be interesting.

Choi's characters are always well drawn and interesting, no matter what their role in the story. Her writing is quick moving, yet thoughtful. She manages to pull off a lot with little action, and she puts forward a great deal of information without falling back on soliloquies to pull it off. Plus, while her writing explores some big topics, she knows how to create a great storyline which pulls the reader in to stay.

She'll be on my campus reading in just a few weeks so I look forward to seeing what she has to say at her reading. I know I'll be moving on to another one of her novels soon.

Reading Challenges
This was a very busy week with soccer practices for one, a piano trio for me to oversee, and extra planning for class. However, I blew ahead of my reading schedule for Choi by reading this in just a few nights. Choi is a joy to return to and an enjoyable break from the "truth" of life. If I have not convinced you to read her yet, please do so soon.

Next Up
We return to non-fiction and another review book, Bruce Feiler's America's Prophet: Moses and the American Story. Feiler is making the argument that the story of Moses has been a moving force in the US. I've read Feiler before and enjoy his unusual approach to issues. This should be an interesting read.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to reading Susan Choi. Enjoyed your review.