A PERSON OF INTEREST

Susan Choi

Almost no one in Susan Choi’s latest novel, A Person of Interest, ever calls the book’s protagonist anything except for his title, “Professor,” and his last name, “Lee.” An aging Asian-born mathematics professor with decidedly limited personal skills, Lee is a prickly colleague and a reclusive neighbor—seemingly the last person who might attract the attention of FBI agents investigating a series of terrorist attacks. However, when a professor in the office next to Lee’s, an outgoing, popular hotshot named Rick Hendley, becomes the latest victim of a technology-hating psychopath known only as the Brain Bomber, Lee’s detached response to the event and his persistent acts of social maladroitness lead not only the Bureau but also the national news media and his own close acquaintances to regard him with damning suspicion.

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Almost no one in Susan Choi’s latest novel, A Person of Interest, ever calls the book’s protagonist anything except for his title, “Professor,” and his last name, “Lee.” An aging Asian-born mathematics professor with decidedly limited personal skills, Lee is a prickly colleague and a reclusive neighbor—seemingly the last person who might attract the attention of FBI agents investigating a series of terrorist attacks. However, when a professor in the office next to Lee’s, an outgoing, popular hotshot named Rick Hendley, becomes the latest victim of a technology-hating psychopath known only as the Brain Bomber, Lee’s detached response to the event and his persistent acts of social maladroitness lead not only the Bureau but also the national news media and his own close acquaintances to regard him with damning suspicion. In this lush, psychologically insightful novel, the outwardly mundane Professor Lee truly becomes a person of interest, not only as he relates to the government’s investigation, but also as a moving study in isolation and misunderstood emotions.

As the allegations regarding Lee multiply, the quiet professor becomes absorbed in his own theory about the bombings. His accusatory thoughts fasten onto Lewis Gaither, a graduate school colleague of bygone days whose wife, Aileen, fell into an adulterous affair with Lee. His religious and moral sensibilities enflamed by his wife’s faithlessness, Gaither fled the Midwestern university where he had been pursuing his doctorate, taking his and Aileen’s infant son, John, with him. Now, thirty years later, in the wake of the bombing of his colleague’s office, Lee receives a cryptic letter that seems to have only one explanation: the bombings are Gaither’s instrument of belated vengeance against the man who seduced his wife. Caught between his guilty recollections of the past and the hysterical suspicions of the present, Lee finds himself ever more on the defensive. While he parries the questions of the FBI and evades the piercing gazes of people who had never before so much as noticed him, Lee ransacks his memory for additional clues. Simultaneously, his conscience is besieged by two other mysteries: where is the boy whom Gaither fathered, and will Lee ever be reunited with Esther, the estranged, rebellious daughter whom Lee fathered with the now-dead Aileen?

Brilliantly acute in her observations of soul and society in the postmodern world, Susan Choi exposes the paranoid subtexts of American culture while she also sensitively considers the poignant struggles and frequent failures of an ordinary man to understand himself and to relate to the people around him. With unerring grace, she explores both the necessity of discovering oneself and the pitfalls of self-absorption. A novel about a man who can rarely find a suitable means of self-expression, A Person of Interest speaks eloquently of the pain of alienation, the harshness of societal judgments, and, thankfully, the slender but ever present possibility of redemption.

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  • Penguin Books
  • Paperback
  • January 2009
  • 368 Pages
  • 9780143115021

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About Susan Choi

The daughter of a Korean father and a Russian-Jewish mother, Susan Choi was born in Indiana and raised in Texas. She holds an undergraduate degree from Yale and an M.F.A. from Cornell. Her first novel, The Foreign Student, won the Asian American Literary Award. Her second novel, American Woman, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A Person of Interest is her third book.

Praise

“A tour de force . . . universal and raw and irresistibly sympathetic.”
The Washington Post Book World

“With nuance, psychological acuity, and pitch-perfect writing, she tells the large-canvas story of paranoia in the age of terror and the smaller (but no less important) story of the cost of failed dreams and the damage we do to one another in the name of love.” —Los Angeles Times

“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, The New York Times Book Review

Discussion Questions

In their minds, Lee’s neighbors and coworkers convict him of Hendley’s murder because they find his reaction to the bombing inappropriate. What explains the willingness of the community to equate social obtuseness with criminal guilt?

Although Lee is not guilty of any crime, his thoughts do not stand up too well under moral scrutiny. His inner life is one of fear, jealousy, guilty desire, and imperfectly repressed aggression. Although he is in some ways a victim of injustice, can the argument be made that he deserves the ill treatment that he sometimes gets?

Does Lee’s character change over the course of the novel? What, if any, are the durable lessons that he learns?

Many of the main characters in A Person of Interest are shaped by either their passionate belief or firm disbelief in God. Choi’s narrative suggests that theistic belief is no guarantee of unerring virtue, nor is its absence a clear sign of moral badness. How does religiosity or its absence affect the moral judgments and personalities of Choi’s characters?

Although some of his actions toward the end of the novel appear to atone for his earlier lapses in judgment, Lee’s redemption remains far from unambiguous. What issues regarding Lee’s redemption remain uncertain at the end of the novel?

How does Choi view the academic profession? What critiques of it does she offer, and how does it serve her as an object for satire?

Mark Gaither lives the first thirty years of his life believing in a fictitious past that his father and stepmother have manufactured for him. Is there any way to excuse the lies that they tell him?

Mark and his friend Gene argue about how important it is to know one’s parents in order to know oneself. In your opinion, how essential is knowing one’s family to achieving knowledge of oneself?

Aileen Gaither Lee, one of the most sympathetic characters in A Person of Interest, is destroyed by the strange fortunes of her romantic life. To what extent does she choose the path that leads to her downfall, and to what extent does her tragedy seem inevitable? What emotions and motivations seem most important in her life, and how blameworthy do you find them?

Lee’s friend Frank Fusano observes that it is never good to be a “tall poppy,” that is, someone who rises to the highest levels of achievement. Nevertheless, Lee, an undistinguished math professor, often reproaches himself for his lack of exceptional accomplishments. What thoughts does Choi express about the tradeoffs between being exceptional and being mediocre?

One of Choi’s characters observes, “There is some relief in becoming old men.” Yet Lee asserts that, as we age, the most rigid, least desirable aspects of ourselves can come to dominate our personalities. What are Choi’s ideas about the experience of growing old?

The popular condemnation of Professor Lee is strongly abetted by the interventions of the news media. What critique of the media does Choi put forward in A Person of Interest? Do you consider her portrayal of the media to be fair and accurate?