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A Person of Interest

A Novel

Susan Choi - Author

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ISBN 9781101202845 | 368 pages | 31 Jan 2008 | Penguin | 18 - AND UP
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With its propulsive drive, vividly realized characters, and profound observations about soul and society, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Susan Choi's latest novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and confirms her place as one of the most important novelists chronicling the American experience. Intricately plotted and psychologically acute, A Person of Interest exposes the fault lines of paranoia and dread that have fractured American life and asks how far one man must go to escape his regrets. Professor Lee, an Asian-born mathematician near retirement age would seem the last person to attract the attention of FBI agents. Yet after a colleague becomes the latest victim of a serial bomber, Lee must endure the undermining power of suspicion and face the ghosts of his past.

It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was forced to admit to himself just how much he'd disliked him: a raw, never-mined vein of thought in an instant laid bare by the force of explosion. Of course, it was typical in his profession for diminishing elders to harbor ill-will toward their junior colleagues. But Lee, who had been tenured in his department for almost twenty-five years, felt that he was exempt from the obsolescence that infected most other professors his age. He was still capable of the harsh princeliness he'd possessed in his youth, although now he was half through his sixties, and his hair was all white. That old aristocratic hauteur would return suddenly, and his loose, dowdy trousers, always belted too high, would seem to sit on a younger man's waist. The liver spots that had come to his face would be bleached by the glare pouring forth from his eyes. His wasn't the kind of temperament spouse or child or friend had ever wanted to cleave to, but for his students it had the power to impress; like most of their peers, they found the notion of mentorship fusty. Unlike Lee in his own student days, they shunned the emeritus aura. They mostly wanted teachers who acted like pals—this was why they'd loved Hendley—but they didn't scorn Lee quite as much, he felt sure, as the other professors his age, the old men with their elbow-patched tweeds, and their stay-at-home wives who made cookies and tea for the very few students who still bothered to seek professorial counsel.

His dislike of Hendley was all the more painful to him for his ignorance of it. Had he known he might have forgiven himself his eager awkwardness in the face of Hendley's camaraderie, the oh yeses he would hear himself helplessly blurting whenever Hendley found him at their faculty coffee events, as if the past fifty years hadn't happened and he was fresh off the boat with ten phrases of English etched painstakingly in his mind. His dislike of Hendley might have prepared him somewhat, if not for what happened then at least for the dislike itself, the cold shock of his first, addled thought when he'd felt the vast fist of the detonation, like a bubble of force that had popped in his face. He'd felt his heart lurch, begin to flop in disorder and fear; he'd seen with his own eyes his wall of university-issue bookcases, the cheap metal kind with adjustable shelves, seem to ride the wall separating his office from Hendley's as if they were liquid, a wave. He had waited an endless instant, the eon between beats of his heart, for those bookcases so laden with waxy math texts to crash down in one motion and kill him, but they somehow had not. The explosion—he'd known right away it was a bomb; unlike almost all of his colleagues, he knew the feel of bombs intimately—had somehow not breached the thin wall through which, day after day, he'd heard Hendley's robust voice and his bleeping computer, and the strange gooselike yodel of Hendley's dial-up modem when it reached its objective. The explosion had not breached the wall, so that the work it had wrought on the far side was left for Lee to imagine, as he felt the force wash over him, felt his heart quail, and felt himself briefly thinking, Oh, good.

The bomb had arrived in a small, heavy cardboard box with the Sun Microsystems logo and address printed on it but afterwards it had been apparent to investigators, as it might have been to Hendley, had he examined the box with suspicion, that it had been reused—recycled, repurposed. Hendley had been alone in his office when he opened the box; Lee had known that Hendley was alone, would later realize that he had always been accurately and painfully aware of whether Hendley had student admirers in his office or not. The force of the explosion threw Lee from his chair, so that he found himself curled not quite under, but against the cold metal flank of his desk. For all that he'd lived through a violent and crude civil war, he'd never been that close to the heart, the hot core, of a bomb. He'd been in the vicinity of far more powerful explosives, such as left steaming holes in the ground—and of course, if he'd been as close, barely ten feet away, to any one of those bombs as he'd been to Hendley's, he would not have lived to feel Hendley's at all. But he had never been so close to a detonation, to that swift bloom of force, regardless of size, in his life.

After the explosion Lee lay curled on the floor of his office, his body pressed to his desk, his eyes closed; they weren't screwed shut in terror, just closed, as if he was taking a nap. The building's automatic sprinkler system had been activated by the blast, and now regular, faintly chemical rain sifted down upon Lee with an unending hiss. Lee did not register the disorder of noise taking form in the hallway: the running feet, toward and away; the first shattering scream. The ambulances arrived first, and then the police and the bomb squad; it was the bomb squad that found Lee, sitting up by that time, with his back to his desk, his legs straight out on the cold tile floor, his gaze riveted forward, but empty. Later, he would tell the police he had known, without doubt, that the bomb must have come in the mail. That rhythm, so deeply ingrained in Lee's being: the last mail of the day, the last light stretching shadows across the cold floor, the silence that grew more deep around him as the revelry in Hendley's office began. Loneliness, which Lee possessed in greater measure and finer grade than his colleagues—of that he was sure —made men more discerning; it made their nerves like antennae that longingly groped in the air. Lee had known the bomb had come in the mail because he had known that only an attack of mail-related scrupulosity would have kept Hendley in his office with the door shut on a spring day as warm and honey-scented as this day had been; Hendley was a lonely man too, in his way. Because the neighboring office was quiet, Lee knew Hendley must be alone; because Hendley was alone, he knew that Hendley was opening mail; because Hendley was opening mail, Lee knew it was that day's mail, freshly arrived. Then the bomb, and Lee's terrible gladness: that something was damaging Hendley, because Hendley made Lee feel even more obsolete and unloved. It had been the gross shock of realizing that he felt glad that had brought him to sitting, from being curled on the floor, and that had nailed his gaze emptily to the opposite wall. He was deep in disgusted reflection on his own pettiness when the bomb squad found him, but unsurprisingly they had assumed he was simply in shock.

"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


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