A Novelist in Full
At the start of her career, Susan Choi-who is half-Korean, and whose first novel won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction-could have comfortably ensconced herself among the literary elite of the multicultural arts world. But though Choi’s protagonists tend to be immigrants, their stories move beyond ethnicity, never quite relinquishing it while steadfastly inhabiting a dynamic present tense where their fates are determined more by action and less by the roots of their surnames. In an age in which Anglo writers remain the presumed default and the ethnic other is often defined as niche, the approach marks Choi, who grew up in Houston and now lives in New York City, as a fairly audacious novelist. Not to mention a smart one.
Within the first three pages of Choi’s hypnotically absorbing new novel, A Person of Interest, a mail bomb blows up in the office of a brilliant young computer science professor. In the following days, FBI agents question Dr. Lee, the math professor who was sitting in his own office next door at the time of the explosion. Before the routine questioning begins, an agent engages in friendly small talk with Lee, inquiring whether the Asian-born professor knows a good sushi place in town: “Not to suggest you’re Japanese … You just seem like a man who knows how to eat well. Of course Lee’s not a Japanese name. Or is it one of the rare ones?”
Lee evades the lightly veiled where-are-you-from query. He responds that “it’s impossible to get good sushi out here … We’re so far from the coast, and the local airport.”
For her part, Choi ignores the issue almost entirely. We get only meager clues. We know Lee emigrated to the United States from somewhere in the South Pacific in his 20s; we know he has experienced war; we know he spoke Japanese before he spoke English, a fact that doesn’t necessarily indicate he is Japanese, as Lee could have been born in any of several countries controlled by the Japanese empire before World War II. Choi’s decision to leave the specifics unspecified is neither coy nor even particularly rebellious. In the context of the novel itself, where simply doesn’t matter. What does matter is when and who: the late 1990s, when Lee is 65 years old, twice divorced, with few friends, a wayward daughter he hasn’t heard from in months, and a flagging career at a so-so midwestern university (also unidentified).
“His life in this country and his life in his native country had so few points of coincidence apart from himself-they had none actually-that when Lee gazed on his past, it could seem as if he’d been young twice. First in his homeland, where his actual youth was spoiled for him prematurely, and then in his adopted United States, where as if in a grand compensation the uncoiling spring of his life had been rewound several times.”,/p>
In rendering ethnicity the least vital of Lee’s statistics, Choi essentially demystifies it. Choi has demystified ethnicity before. In American Woman (her second novel and a 2004 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), the Japanese-American protagonist (based on Symbionese Liberation Army bomber Wendy Yoshimura) is told that her “skin is a privilege” and her “Third World perspective’s a privilege.” She counters: “… stop saying I’m from the Third World when I’m from California.”
When the protagonist of a novel compels a secondary character to look beyond ethnicity (whether gently, like Lee, or bluntly, as in American Woman), that character compels the reader to shift focus as well, away from ethnic identity and toward the events-not just the circumstances-that define a life. In A Person of Interest, those events are as gripping as Lee is compelling.
The novel’s opening scene-which introduces the highly nuanced and rhythmically seamless prose Choi employs throughout-casts its careful light on professor Lee as he sits idly alone holding office hours, quietly harboring resentment toward professor Hendley, the young hotshot whose office is next door.
“Each afternoon [Lee] would carefully stand the door open twelve inches, or the width someone needed to duck in casually and say hi; not wide open, as if in eager anticipation, and not merely slightly ajar, as if he begrudged this time for his students.” Most days Lee dutifully sits through his office hours with nary a pimply-faced calculus scholar to soothe, while Hendley holds jocular court with students who line the hallways like hippies at a Phish concert.
Then, one quiet afternoon while both men sit alone in their respective offices, Hendley with his door closed, Lee with his open, a mail bomb-carefully packaged and purposefully addressed-goes off in Hendley’s office, exploding in the man’s face. Though the force of the blast knocks Lee to the floor, he is left unhurt: “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.”
During sweetly perfumed spring days in which university administrators hold memorial services and post fliers around campus (“A NORMAL DAY IS OKAY”), FBI agents and media crews swarm the usually peaceful college town. Though Lee initially attracts attention just for having survived the bombing, a seemingly innocuous white lie regarding a mysterious letter he received in the first days after the bombing quickly moves Lee into the “person-of-interest” category. The phrase baffles Lee’s neighbors and colleagues, leaving them to assume that despite the FBI’s carefully considered lingo, Lee-quiet, introverted, and sometimes even a tad grumpy-is the main suspect. To the neighbors, even the suspicion of suspicion is enough to coalesce a theory in retrospect: It all makes sense now.
The letter opens a window into Lee’s past, allowing both reader and protagonist to trace back to the early days of Lee’s graduate program in math, then to his fervid up-and-down relationship with the woman who becomes his first wife, and finally to the more or less solitary days of quiet desperation that mark Lee’s life until the blast heard round the campus explodes into the larger national consciousness.
As in American Woman, where she re-imagined events surrounding the Patty Hearst kidnapping, Choi has here taken on a similarly larger-than-life news story, one that’s become part of our cultural narrative. In addition to the emotionally wrought and deeply complex character study of professor Lee, the novel also exposes the highly politicized tenor of our times. While the novel’s plot is clearly, in part, a fictionalized account of the Theodore Kaczynski bombings, the plot’s trajectory also resonates in our post-9/11 world. Once the hunt for the novel’s so-called Brain Bomber leads authorities to Lee, the media frenzy, the onslaught of campus grief counselors, and the mounting hysteria among neighbors and colleagues begins to look unnervingly familiar.
In that larger context, perhaps it’s beside the point that Choi avoids the pigeonholing that befalls so many non-Anglo writers, but probably not. While writers like Amy Tan and, more recently, Jhumpa Lahiri have certainly engendered a better understanding of what it means to straddle two cultures (the very core of the multicultural experience), the popularity of such exotic fictions has also (and particularly in the case of Tan) made a fetish of ethnic identity. The problem is that doing so ultimately devalues the experience it purports to validate.
The dilemma calls to mind the 1981 Observer essay in which Larry McMurtry took his fellow Texas writers to task for “paying too much attention to nature, not enough to human nature.” A similar statement could be made regarding multicultural literature and ethnic identity. While the immigrant and first-generation experience is a vital part of the American story, and certainly an indelible thread of American fiction, Choi’s novels remind us that our stories don’t end there.
“Now what we need,” McMurtry challenged, “is a Balzac, a Dickens, even a Dreiser.”
McMurtry wasn’t simply dropping the most universal names he had at the tip of his Hermes 3000. What Balzac, Dickens, and Dreiser did for the literatures of France, England, and the United States was nothing short of re-envisioning their respective national travesties.
What Choi accomplishes in A Person of Interest, particularly in her refusal to lean on multicultural cachet, is testament to her extraordinary talent and her sense of writerly purpose. Neither fully ignoring nor fully addressing Lee’s early life in that unnamed Far East land, she instead places him smack in the middle of a terroristic event with universal implications.
Through Lee’s eyes (a flawed view, certainly, regretful and even at times hopeful), we watch the significant moments of his adult life tossed and reshuffled in his consciousness, while all around him the chaos of a national tragedy unfolds. Now that sounds like the work of a Balzac, a Dickens, and, yes, certainly a Dreiser.
Azita osanloo reveived an MFA from the University of Montana and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University.