Monday, April 28, 2008

If nobody likes you, will you be a suspect? Susan Choi, A PERSON OF INTEREST

Suppose you've always felt like the outcast, the person who doesn't belong -- and instead of working every social occasion to project, make friends, fit in, you gave up and built a wall of distance around yourself, a visible absence of warmth. Now suppose the person in the next office, clearly better liked and more successful, is suddenly killed by a letter bomb and there are clues to the crime that point toward you. How will you defend yourself when the FBI comes to the door?

Susan Choi takes the chilling situation and frames it around Asian-born Professor Lee, a man whose mathematical gifts have long given him an excuse for reticence and the awkwardness that is part of his personality. In A PERSON OF INTEREST, she weaves a desperately emotional trap around this man of few visible emotions, a lonely near-retirement mathematics professor whose losses and griefs loom so enormous that he's practically shut himself off from the rest of his life.

Choi's an expert in pace and atmosphere; this is her third novel, and the first, American Woman, took a 2004 Pulitzer prize. A PERSON OF INTEREST is a potent literary exploration, careful and methodical with an obsession with inner life that makes its opening deceptively quiet. Yet from the first smoky threat of suspicion, new threats blossom around Lee, and all the quiet corpses of his past seem to walk back into the FBI investigation, pointing their fingers at him.

Here's a sample from early in the book:

Jealousy had stained much of Lee's life, yet he'd never seen himself as prone to it, perhaps because he'd first become jealous surprisingly late. ... Lee felt fierce love for the naïve and arrogant young man he'd been, and sometimes, in his immigrant life, this love almost seemed to reanimate that former self, so that to outsiders he seemed both arrogant and remarkably blind to his own circumstances.

And here's another piece from later, as the trap of Lee's life tightens its teeth during the investigation:

These words hung in the air with a weird singularity. In the course of their whispered and hissed conversation, and outside Lee's notice, the dense percolation of engines and voices had diminished by steady degrees. Now all that remained was a last van door slamming, and then a last acceleration down Fearrington Way.

"It can't be true," Lee whispered, almost to himself.

Combine the inner terror of shame and despair with the outer of being hunted, both by a killer and by the FBI, and Lee's situation develops in nearly unbearable tension. Choi's quick deft resolution of the book offers multiple surprises, and painful opportunities for change.

It's tempting to compare this work to the writing of Henning Mankell, for the portrayal of inner and outer bleakness as well as threat. But by setting this inverted police procedural within a victim and on and around an American college campus, Choi dodges Mankell's association with a specific outer landscape (Scandinavia) and instead drives home the parallels to all the moments when we feel powerless, trapped. The moment in the overheated car with the scowling police officer demanding your license and registration. The dark echo of the empty parking garage broken by a scuffed shoe. The ringing phone with the empty line and a hint of someone breathing.

If Alfred Hitchcock still filmed, he'd be mulling this one over for the next dizzying and revealing long shot of the lens. Highly recommended, but lock the doors and keep some music on as you read, or whatever steps are your best protection from fear.

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