Margins of terror

Novelist Susan Choi puts a new spin on the Unabomber story.

STRICTURES OF AN INSTITUTION Choi imagines the constraints of campus life.

STRICTURES OF AN INSTITUTION Choi imagines the constraints of campus life. Photograph: Sigrid Estrada

In the Fort Greene coffeeshop, a cell phone jangles at the next table, and Susan Choi whips her head around, curious. “Oh, it’s an iPhone,” she exclaims, watching a woman fiddle with the gadget. “I’m technology’s innocent,” Choi says, before adding in a self-mocking tone, “That must be that new thing everyone’s talking about.”

This turns out to be a funny meta-moment, evoking her latest novel’s protagonist, Dr. Lee, a reclusive math professor entangled in an investigation of a series of Unabomber-like mail attacks. At one point he becomes fixated on an FBI agent’s “magical phone snapping shut in her palm like a squarish black bivalve.” Lest anyone think Choi shares Ted Kaczynski’s Luddite tendencies, she quickly explains her techno-aversion: “It’s incompetence, not any kind of ideological position.”

Still, the Unabomber case is one of the inspirations for A Person of Interest, an engrossing, intricately plotted story about the recalcitrant Dr. Lee, who teaches at a Midwestern university where a bomb has killed a hotshot mathematician. Lee, an immigrant from an unspecified Asian country, is declared a hero at first for his sudden burst of outrage over the bombing. But he soon attracts the attention of a federal agent with the improbable name Jim Morrison.

While Lee may be guilty of general detachment and isolation, he is innocent of masterminding a terrorist plot. Nonetheless, TV reporters descend as suspicious colleagues and neighbors readily contribute to the growing media circus, full of “men probing the air with long poles baited with microphones.”

Choi’s book calls to mind multiple real-life investigations: Wen Ho Lee, the scientist accused of stealing nuclear secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory; Steven Hatfill, a scientist targeted by the government and The New York Times shortly after the 2001 anthrax attacks; and Kaczynski, the man known as the Unabomber, who is now serving life in prison for murdering three people and wounding many others in his campaign against technology. Of the latter’s manifesto, the author says: “I don’t want to get in trouble, but it’s not garbage. It’s interesting.”

Her previous novel, American Woman, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, centered on Jenny Shimada, a young Japanese-American woman on the lam in the 1970s for bombing draft offices, who ends up assisting a Patty Hearst–like heiress and her fellow fugitives. “I guess it’s obvious that I work a lot from actual life,” she notes.

Choi has long been interested in domestic radicalism, but A Person of Interest hits especially close to home. The author and her father, a math professor at the University of Indiana, had been closely following the Unabomber case in the 1990s, and they were both astonished when Kaczynski was arrested for the bombings. Choi’s dad, it turned out, had gone to graduate school with him at the University of Michigan in the ’60s. “It was an amazing coincidence for him, and he was on the telephone for days with his old colleagues and classmates talking about it.”

The author is quick to clarify that this revelation about her father’s former classmate was merely a starting point for her novel, and that Professor Lee and her father are hardly the same person. “The idea that an innocent math professor would become a suspect of the other person’s crimes came later,” she says, “and actually made the whole thing much more exciting for me.”

A Person of Interest brims with whodunit suspense and media escalation, but it also draws from a less shocking genre: the academic novel. Choi read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain while working on the book, which is particularly sharp with its details about campus living. “Those are taken from my life as the daughter of a reasonably disgruntled academic and my own fairly brief but pungent graduate experience,” says the author, who had a brief stint as a doctoral student at Cornell.

While A Person of Interest crackles with the sensationalism of the actual Unabomber events, it is anchored by its quiet portrait of a man in the melancholic twilight of his career, beset with regrets and professional jealousies. Against the backdrop of the trumped-up public witch hunt, Lee has to reckon with a private culpability. In this sense, there still remains the question of the man’s guilt—not of orchestrating a devastating bombing campaign, but of smaller, past transgressions, the betrayals and injuries of everyday life. “We’re all supposed to be presumed innocent, but for people to actually presume that you’re innocent, you have to be a saint,” Choi declares. “If there’s anything even remotely normal about you, you’re sunk.”

A Person of Interest (Viking, $24.95) is out now. Choi reads Fri 1.