A Novelist of Interest

Susan Choi, a graduate of the High School for Performing and Visual Arts here in Houston, returned to talk to the students this past March. Discussing her writing process, she described how she’s incorporated aspects of people she knows into her characters, and shared the evolution of the idea behind her third novel, A Person of Interest (2008). Choi’s father, a Korean math professor, went to graduate school with Ted Kaczynksi, who would later become the notorious Unabomber. Naturally, Choi found this tidbit fascinating, and started writing with the idea that the main character, occupying her father’s position, would, while the bombings were ongoing, recognize that he knew the bomber, and would be conflicted about whether he should turn him in. But she said she soon realized this did not actually make a very interesting story, and what would be more interesting was if the character in her father’s position started to act increasingly suspicious when he crossed paths with the FBI’s investigation. This was an aspect of the character she could personally identify with, saying she got nervous around policemen when she had absolutely no reason to be. This also provides a nice general rising-action arc: the more suspicious the character acts, the more he’ll be suspected, which will in turn cause him to act even more suspicious, which will cause him to be increasingly suspect…

And so, a summary of how A Person of Interest plays out: When a mailed-in bomb goes off in the adjacent office at the midwestern university where Korean immigrant Dr. Lee teaches math, it kills a popular young prodigy professor named Hendley, and Lee is forced to confront the extent to which he disliked Hendley without previously acknowledging it. (But he still speaks to news reporters that night decrying the heinousness of the crime.) Lee nonsensically tells the bomb squad when they enter his office that he needs to call his wife, thinking not of his more recent ex-wife Michiko but of his dead first wife, Aileen. He met Aileen when he was in graduate school, where, after failing to befriend the top student in the class, Donald Whitehead, Lee became friends with another student, Lewis Gaither, then Aileen’s husband. Eventually Aileen and Lee began an affair that went on hiatus when Aileen told him she was pregnant with Gaither’s baby. When she split with Gaither, Gaither took the baby, then called John, and once married to Aileen himself, Lee did nothing to help her get John back, implying he would leave her if she tried because he did not want to raise another man’s child. He has one child by Aileen, Esther, who was fourteen when Aileen died of cancer after she divorced Lee. Now grown, Esther’s work with wild eagles keeps her transient and frequently out of touch entirely. 

After the bombing, Lee receives a letter in his university mailbox from someone who refers to himself as his “graduate school colleague” and who references committing the bombing; Lee assumes the letter is from Gaither. When Lee is eventually questioned about the letter by FBI agents who were tracking the school’s mail, Lee lies and says he’s thrown the letter away, then later, under further questioning, admits that he still has it and shows it to the agent, Jim Morrison, telling him about Gaither. After this (and taking a polygraph test that comes back “inconclusive,”) Lee becomes a “Person of Interest” in the case, and when rumors get out about his being questioned, in conjunction with the fact that he had animosity with Hendley and didn’t show up to Hendley’s memorial, his colleagues, students, and neighbors begin to believe he’s the “Brain Bomber.” The FBI searches his house and seizes his possessions, which Lee, in front of news cameras, does not react well to. Morrison also tells Lee that Gaither is dead. The FBI puts a tail on Lee that Lee causes to rear-end him when he stops suddenly in an intersection. He manages to throw the tail off and sneak back to his house, where he sees he’s been mailed a page torn out of his doctoral dissertation. Lee, believing Gaither has staged an elaborate setup to frame him, flees the state and makes it to his old university’s library, where he finds the copy of his dissertation with the page torn out and in its place a note from the bomber. 

We then jump to the perspective of Mark, Lewis Gaither’s son. He was raised by Gaither and a woman named Ruth whom he believes to be his mother; they lived a transient lifestyle moving to different countries as missionaries. Mark drifted from them in his late teens and got into drugs and alcohol; he was surprised Ruth was even able to locate him to tell him when Gaither died in Indonesia. Recovered now but still transient, he lives an isolated existence in a small mountain town and enjoys hiking. When FBI agents turn up questioning him about his father, he’s disturbed by their question about his father attending graduate school for math in the Midwest, which he had never heard about and which Ruth continues to deny despite Mark’s calling the school and confirming it’s true. Starting to put the clues together that there are more significant questions about his origin, Mark feels himself on the verge of a crisis, exacerbated when he runs into a big garrulous family while hiking and holds a baby for the first time, thinking that the baby won’t remember anything from this time and will have to take his parents’ word for it. 

We go back to Lee on his cross-country trek to Sippston, Idaho, where the bomber’s note has directed him to a public library. The drive reminds him of all the drives he used to make between the midwest and Rhode Island, where Aileen moved with Esther after divorcing him. He recalls her dying days in the hospital, where Aileen’s sister Nora called him out for not helping get John back from Gaither when they first got married. Lee considered asking Aileen if she wanted him to try to locate John before she died, but delayed so long that she died before he did. He arrives at the Sippston library as it’s closing, and the librarian, Marjorie, tells him she has instructions from “Dr. Burt” to bring Lee up the mountain. Lee initially resists but lets her drive him up nearly impassable terrain to the cabin, where he meets not Lewis Gaither, but Donald Whitehead. Whitehead is excited to see him, but right after he admits to killing Hendley they hear an engine outside and Lee bolts; someone outside grabs him and bundles him into a car and down the mountain. It turns out to be FBI agents; Lee initially thinks they followed him to Whitehead but it turns out they followed an independent lead from a correspondent of Whitehead’s, so it’s a complete coincidence. He reunites with Agent Morrison, who tells him a news team has gotten hold of the story and so they’re on a strict timeline to nab Whitehead before Whitehead and everyone else learns they know where he is. That his place is so inaccessible and that his cabin is likely booby-trapped leads Lee to semi-volunteer, despite being ill, to go back up (in a blizzard and weighed down by a bulletproof vest) and lure Whitehead out of his cabin so they don’t have to risk getting killed going in to get him. Whitehead is suspicious due to Lee’s sudden disappearance the night before, but Lee engages him in a discussion of how he was jealous of Whitehead’s gifts. From his doorway Whitehead expounds on how he’s killing individuals to save the world from the larger harm caused by their inventions, invoking the damage of the atom bomb, and when Lee counters that Hendley would not have hurt anybody, he’s suddenly overwhelmed by grief for him and starts weeping, which finally draws Whitehead out to help him, and the FBI agents who have been concealing themselves pounce on him without anybody getting hurt. Before Lee leaves Idaho, Morrison returns a personal effect of his he knows Lee will value, an old letter from Aileen.

When Lee gets home after the news of the Brain Bomber’s capture, people are still wary of him, thinking him somehow involved. His old colleague Fasano comes to visit, and he gets a postcard from Esther that she’ll be arriving soon. Before she does he gets another visitor–Mark, who’s located a copy of his birth certificate with Aileen’s name on it. Lee confirms she was his mother and tells him she’s dead. He cooks dinner for him but before he can eat Mark reads the letter from Aileen Lee had left out on the table, which discusses him when he was a baby, and collapses into sobs for what he’s lost; Lee sits with him until he falls asleep. Mark goes with Lee to the airport to pick up Esther so he can meet his half-sister, and in the final line Esther arrives. The End. 

This novel provides a near-textbook example of acute tension (in this case the bombing of his colleague Hendley and himself becoming a pseudo-suspect) pushing chronic tension (Lee’s role in the destruction of his marriage to Aileen) to the surface and forcing it to a new resolution. As in A Canticle for Leibowitz, the acute tension of the bombing appears in the novel’s opening line: 

It was only after Hendley was bombed that Lee was forced to admit to himself how much he’d disliked him: a raw, never-mined vein of thought in an instant laid bare by the force of explosion.

This line could serve as a symbolic description of how acute and chronic tension interact generally, the “force of explosion” the symbol of acute tension and the “raw, never-mined vein of thought” a symbol of the chronic, while the “in an instant laid bare” describes how the acute brings the chronic to the resolution of a new epiphany. 

More specifically, this particular “never-mined vein of thought” is referring to the chronic tension of Lee’s dislike of Hendley, which exists before the novel starts, but that chronic tension is really indicative of the deeper chronic tension of how Lee’s shortcomings as an individual have manifested in his most regret-worthy mistake(s). Choi does an excellent job of running the development of the chronic tension on a parallel track with the acute, so that the chronic has its own narrative arc, which climaxes with the revelation of what Lee’s most regret-worthy mistake is–his not offering to find John when Aileen is on her deathbed. It’s also narratively appropriate that this mistake is not fully revealed to the reader until near the end of the novel because it shows how deeply Lee has buried it in his psyche, how much he does not want to confront it, and can only be pushed to by the mounting events of the acute tension.   

Lee’s dislike of Hendley resurfaces in a narratively satisfying way during the climax of the acute tension–when Lee is luring Whitehead out of his cabin. In this moment, when Lee invokes Hendley, he finally feels grief for him rather than bitterness, and it’s his weeping for Hendley that draws Whitehead out, while also showing that Lee has overcome some of the pettiness that has marked him as a character and been responsible for his biggest chronic-tension mistake (one can read into the moment that he’s weeping for more than just Hendley here). This is narratively neat but didn’t (to me at least) feel too heavy-handed; it felt more like a narrative spandrel, that in seeking a way that Lee was going to be able to lure Whitehead out, Choi looked back to what was prominent in the novel’s beginning and in it found a way to show Lee’s progress as a character, manifest in his weeping, which leads to his successfully completing a mission for the same guys–the FBI–who were largely responsible for wrecking his life over the previous months, though notably Lee’s own actions played a significant role in their actions toward him wrecking his life–their suspecting him wrecked his life, but they suspected him because he was acting suspicious. 

The use of an object associated with Whitehead–his houndstooth jacket–also felt like a possible spandrel in how it came to play a role in the acute-tension climax. It’s mentioned in the early flashback scene with Whitehead near the book’s beginning: 

Whitehead was wearing a rumpled green-and-gold houndstooth jacket that was slightly too large but that somehow, for this flaw, was more flattering. 

A moment later, when Whitehead tells Lee he’s “tragically impoverished,” we get: 

Lee doubted it, looking at the old but well-pedigreed jacket. He’d never found something like that at the secondhand store.

Near the novel’s end, when Lee goes into Whitehead’s cabin, it’s been raining and he’s not wearing a waterproof jacket, so Whitehead offers him one of his: 

“Here is the woodstove, Lee, here is the peg for your jacket, here’s ancient raiment of mine you can wear while that dries.” …

A blast of wood smoke and intimate odor scorched Lee’s eyes and nostrils; yet despite the strength of these foul exhalations, the houndstooth jacket drooped, a windless flag, from Lee’s hand. 

“Lewis isn’t here,” Lee said–telling himself, reprimanding himself, wringing the jacket with fury.

…he absorbed these impressions instantaneously, his mind’s shutter held open, as he turned for the door, half an arm’s reach away, and plunged through it, skidding down the two moss-slickened steps, belatedly rejecting the houndstooth jacket and then tripping over and trampling it into the mud.

Then, when Lee returns the next day, now at the behest of the FBI, the jacket appears again: 

Lee realized [Whitehead] was wearing the old houndstooth jacket. He must have ventured out to retrieve it from where Lee had dropped it in the course of his flight. And then dried it, perhaps carefully draped on the smoking woodstove. It was true that the decades had made it too small for his frame. It barely stretched from shoulder to shoulder and winged out on both sides from a gap where it should have been buttoned. Even the sleeves ended short of the thick, hairy wrists. Now Lee knew, from Agent Morrison and Dave and Wing Tips, that Whitehead had never been the scion of a moneyed and lettered East Coast family, as Lee once romantically thought. He was the midwestern son of a husbandless mother, who had raised him in sooty brick houses against a background of smokestacks. The jacket must have come from a secondhand store, like Lee’s briefcase. Perhaps it had never quite fit. 

The jacket has become associated with Lee’s realization that he’d been completely wrong in his conception of Whitehead when they were students, and that he’s been wrong in thinking Gaither’s the bomber. These two mistakes are directly connected and explain how Lee misreads the original letter that makes him believe the bomber is Gaither (a mistake that by novel’s end becomes obviously a manifestation of his own guilt), a conclusion he largely infers from the reference that “I can admit that you bruised me, that last time we met.” The last time they met is in the scene where the jacket is initially referenced, and Lee doesn’t even register that he’s been rude to Whitehead because he’s so preoccupied with his own problems with Aileen, and thus has no chance whatsoever of connecting the letter to Whitehead. The acute tension forces Lee to confront how he misunderstood Whitehead, which forces him to confront the chronic tension of how he misunderstood himself and his marriage. 

It’s a convenient coincidence that the FBI shows up at the bomber’s at the same time Lee does. Choi calls attention to this coincidence by having Lee initially think he led the FBI to the bomber because they followed him all the way from Iowa, but this turning out not to be the case. This, in conjunction with the fact that the coincidence is narratively necessary, otherwise Lee would not have the chance to redeem himself, is why I think in large part she gets away with it. 

The narrative doubles down on mistaken identity: Lee as mistaken suspect–while Agent Morrison is careful never to call him this, his colleagues, neighbors and the media end up treating him as such–and Lee is mistaken in whom he suspects of the bombings when he thinks it’s Gaither. This major mistake of Lee’s in the acute-tension situation seems symbolic of his mistake in his chronic-tension situation; both reflect his inability to see what’s really going on. The novel is so satisfying because Lee’s chronic tension makes him the perfect character for this acute-tension situation: he deserves to be misjudged and mistaken for a suspect because of all the ways he’s misjudged other people: Gaither, Whitehead, and most importantly, himself.   

That Whitehead gets a couple of mentions and a scene of seemingly little consequence in one of the early flashbacks in which Lee rashly confesses to him his affair with Aileen will lead some readers to pick up on the fact that when Morrison tells Lee Gaither is dead, he’s telling the truth, though Lee continues persists in believing for quite some time after this that Gaither’s death can’t be true, that the FBI is either messing with him or Gaither changed his name and went off the grid. Lee’s persistence in this belief is a sign of something else readers will have picked up on by this point in the narrative–his capacity for denial in the face of evidence to the contrary of whatever it is he’s denying. This will manifest most specifically in his major chronic-tension issue, his role in the destruction of his marriage to Aileen due to his unwillingness to raise John. 

Another object that plays a prominent role in the novel, perhaps coming into play in the plot more directly than the houndstooth jacket, is the letter from Aileen that Agent Morrison gives back to Lee. This gesture on Morrison’s part after Lee has helped capture Whitehead shows that he’s redeemed himself to those who once considered him a possible suspect, but it also shows how this redemption goes beyond the acute tension and extends to the chronic–Lee has regained something of Aileen by confronting how he failed her. The object also adds layers of resonance to his early utterance to the bomb squad that he needs to call his wife–in a sense, she’s answered him. The letter then comes into play directly when Mark reads it, and since it’s about how Aileen cared for him, it brings into stark relief for him what he’s lost. The object of the letter also recalls the other prominent letter in the plot, the one Whitehead initially sends to Gaither. This is what leads to Lee becoming a person of interest, but it’s important to remember that Whitehead sent Lee the letter because–in a twist that resembles how the bomber himself is eventually caught–he read the news story about him decrying the crime against Hendley (and secretly getting off on his “eloquent outrage”). Lee is not being elaborately framed as he comes to believe at one point; he’s actually brought all this on himself. 


So Very, Very Cold

Don DeLillo’s most recent novel Zero K (2016) is one of his slimmer volumes, divided into two ten-chapter parts with an anomalous sliver of a section in the middle. In Part 1, the first-person narrator Jeffrey travels to a remote area in the former USSR to a facility known as “the Convergence,” where he’s meeting his wealthy titan-of-global-finance father, Ross Lockhart. Ross (whom Jeffrey refers to as such) is having his wife, Jeffrey’s stepmom Artis, cryogenically frozen as a way to preserve her life since she’s dying from complications related to multiple sclerosis. The facility is highly ascetic, with its defining features being tasteless food, female mannequins, knobless doors, an absence of windows, and screens playing a series of apocalyptic images. Jeffrey hears talks about the philosophy behind the facility from its twin-brother founders, who believe they’re at the forefront of a new consciousness, and, with a pseudo monk, visits the hospice section where people are waiting to die before being frozen. We get some backstory about Jeffrey being raised alone by his mother after his father left; she’s since died of a stroke. As a person Jeffrey is generally obsessed with numbers and labels, especially the fact that his father changed his name as a young man. He is very upset when his father tells him that he’s decided to go with Artis and be frozen himself, ending his life prematurely, but then at the last second Ross backs out and decides to return to New York City with Jeffrey. Right before they leave, Jeffrey sees a video of panicked people fleeing something on one of the screens and it occurs to him that the images aren’t real but digitally manipulated, but then apparently real people come barreling down the hall toward him, including the founding twin brothers.

We then get a brief section depicting Artis’s consciousness inside her Convergence pod, which consists largely of first-person questions stated as sentences and third-person italicized actual sentences, apparently reflecting her now split self:

She is first person and third person with no way to join them together.

In Part 2, Jeffrey is in New York City two years later, dating a woman, Emma, who has a 14-year-old adopted son from the Ukraine named Stack who only visits her rarely and becomes increasingly delinquent and/or disconnected, eventually quitting school. Jeffrey goes on lots of job interviews but eschews his father’s drive for money. His father is deteriorating in Artis’s absence and eventually tells Jeffrey he wants to go back to the Convergence, and Jeffrey, after finally taking a new job as a “compliance and ethics officer” for a college, agrees to travel with him. They go back right after Emma tells Jeffrey that Stack has disappeared, seemingly voluntarily. Jeffrey hears another lecture, this time from just one of the twin brothers, about how they’re escaping the world’s eventually ending in war, and then he watches as Ross is readied for his cryogenic chamber. He’s told by an escort how Ross’s benefaction enabled a lot of the work and shown the room with all the bodies in pods, then Artis in a special pod with an empty one next to her where Ross will go. He watches images of war unfold on one of the screens showing a bunch of soldiers, and one of them is Emma’s son Stack, whom he watches get shot and die. He returns to New York, picks up his job at the college and settles into a “soft life.” Emma tells him what happened to Stack and returns to live with Stack’s father, while Jeffrey doesn’t tell her he saw it happen and regrets not sharing more of himself with her, like his history with his parents, instead attempting to present himself to her “in isolation.” He witnesses the moment that occurs once a year when the sun’s rays perfectly align with Manhattan’s street grid and appreciates a possibly mentally disabled boy’s corresponding cries of wonder. The End. 

I was partially inspired to start this blog by a bookseller’s comment that a novel didn’t “work”; that novel was Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street, which I still haven’t read and probably won’t for awhile, after this most recent reading experience. The bookseller’s comment led me to declare a philosophy that in evaluating creative work my students and I are “not looking for what is ‘wrong,’ but for what it can teach us,” and, at the risk of sounding snarky, it seems like what’s predominantly to be learned in this case is that if you’ve published fifteen novels to general acclaim and are a familiar name, you can publish a book that if written by a nobody would never see the light of day, namely because it would seem like a hackneyed DeLillo ripoff.  

I had to slog my way through this book–this is the term that recurred to me repeatedly as I listened to the audiobook, slog, and I don’t know that I would have been able to complete this slog through the print version. I was really only able to make it through with the hope that Part 2 was going to offer a significant narrative shift in which we leapt to the future and discovered what life was really going to be like for the people who had elected to cryogenically freeze themselves. The closest we get to this is the middle section with Artis’s narration from her pod, which for me was the most painful of the entire book. Her sentence-question “Does it keep going on like this” defines my experience, and the answer is, unfortunately, yes, it does keep going on like this. In a charitable reading of the novel, it seems like DeLillo is intentionally withholding what lies on the other side of the pod in a replication of real-life experience; after all, as Jeffrey puts it to a completely random figure who appears in a completely random simulation of an English garden after he’s struggling with his father’s decision to be frozen with Artis: 

“It’s only human to want to know more, and then more, and then more,” I said. “But it’s also true that what we don’t know is what makes us human. And there’s no end to not knowing.”

This quote is also as good an example as any of the novel consisting predominantly of philosophy with a veneer of character so thin you can see the blankness through its eyeholes. Jeffrey’s defining characteristic of being obsessed with names and labels felt like quintessential DeLillo, and it also made me want to throttle him–and “him” can apply to both Jeffrey and DeLillo–before smashing his head–and my own for good measure–against a brick wall. To perform a DeLilloan quantification, the word “name” appears in the book 167 times. Clearly the “character” is trying to impose order on a disordered world, and the repetitiveness and redundancy of it is likely commentary on the redundancy of life and our struggle to make sense of it, but this is not packaged in any kind of a remotely compelling narrative. 

Part of what seems to contribute to Jeffrey’s utter lack of compellingness is his utterly passive nature. He is a witness, a peripheral figure thrust into the center. While witnesses can certainly tell a more compelling character’s story–The Great Gatsby being perhaps the most famous example–Nick Carraway’s understanding of the world is irrevocably shifted by the events he bears witness to. While I could sense a technical reversal/revelation for the character of Jeffrey in the final chapter in his preferring to appreciate the ugly sounds of a disabled boy’s excitement over the more objectively beautiful source of that excitement, it left me cold as it must be in the Convergence pods. Which again seems like it could be the ultimate intent, considering the tile, explained thus:    

The guide explained the meaning of the term Zero K. This was rote narration, with plotted stops and restarts, and it concerned a unit of temperature called absolute zero, which is minus two hundred and seventy-three point one five degrees celsius. A physicist named Kelvin was mentioned, he was the K in the term. The most interesting thing the guide had to say was the fact that the temperature employed in cryostorage does not actually approach zero K.

I did not feel Jeffrey’s shift, because I never felt like he was a real person. If it was DeLillo’s goal to execute a cold, emotionless novel, then well done, though I’m still struggling with what the purpose of this would be. Perhaps it’s a commentary on the lives that the people who are freezing themselves will ultimately be living, against the grand declarations of the facility. Though Part 1’s conclusion that as soon as Jeffrey starts to think the images on the screens are fake they prove to be real, further underscored in Part 2 by Emma confirming Stack’s death, seems to undermine this reading, since Jeffrey is a primary advocate of the idea that the Convergence is offering a false promise.

It seems that part of his character’s reversal at the end is supposed to be regret over his cold emotionlessness, for his presenting himself “in isolation” to Emma, but this reversal achieves no emotional warmth for a character who’s always been a hollow mask for the philosophy of what a slog life is. Perhaps we’re meant to perceive his embracing of a “soft life” in the face of his father’s grandiose ambitions to embody a heretofore unknown consciousness as heroic, but it’s hard to feel this without feeling him as an actual human being. Jeffrey seems to show the most emotion when Ross tells him his decision to be frozen with Artis, but this quickly devolves into nonsensical melodrama when he asks

“Do you understand how this reduces me?”


“I’m shamed by this, totally diminished.”

There’s not a clear context for why he feels this way, as he himself admits later:

“You thought you knew who your father was. Isn’t this what you meant when you said you felt reduced by this decision?”

“I don’t know what I meant.”

He has no clear fears or desires, and so does not feel human.  

Then there’s the character of Artis, whose name is comprised of the words “art is,” seeming to offer art as a potential balm to life’s slog–she’s the one who gets Jeffrey’s money-grubbing father to appreciate art and history, after all–in which case DeLillo’s apparent goal to replicate life’s slog so exactingly seems doomed from the outset. It frequently seems like the meaning he’s aiming for is that words are meaningless shells, which for a novelist would be fairly self-defeating. 

Of course, this is just one reader’s opinion. Joshua Ferris fairly drooled over the novel in his New York Times book review, concluding the polar opposite of what I have: 

…it all adds up to one of the most mysterious, emotionally moving and formally rewarding books of DeLillo’s long career. 

Perhaps I’m just tired of reading a white man’s world. The female reviewer for The Atlantic, Meghan Daum, while moderating her tone more than I’ve been able to, concurs that 

DeLillo’s characters can often sound more like delivery mechanisms for existential inquiry than like real people. 


…Jeff is not so much his own man as a case study in contemporary alienation.


I confess that Zero K drove me a bit mad.

I feel less mad knowing I am not alone. 



Buzzards, Bombs, & Burlap

Perhaps there was a time, post Cold War, when the exploration of nuclear fallout in Walter M. Miller’s 1960 post-apocalyptic sci-fi classic A Canticle for Leibowitz seemed out of date. It would seem now that time is up. 

Part 1: Fiat Homo (chs 1-11; six centuries after Flame Deluge)
The novel opens with Brother Francis Gerard, a novice in the Albertian Order of Leibowitz, in the desert on a Lenten vigil that’s required before he can take his official vows. A “pilgrim” approaches his encampment who offers to find Francis a rock to fit in the gap of a structure he’s building to protect himself from wolves. When Francis removes the rock the pilgrim has pointed out after the pilgrim has left, he discovers an old fallout shelter he presumes is from the time of the “Flame Deluge.” His higher-ups at the Leibowitz Abbey don’t want him to explore it because they’re trying to get Leibowitz canonized as a saint and fear it will look to outsiders like they’ve fabricated evidence. After the Flame Deluge came a period known as the “Simplification,” during which books were burned, since human knowledge was seen as the source of the Flame Deluge, but “bookleggers” arose to try to preserve some of this knowledge, Leibowitz starting an organization of such before being hung for doing so, while the efforts he started eventually evolved into the Abbey which still tries to preserve human knowledge six centuries later. Rumors spring from Francis’s descriptions of the pilgrim that the pilgrim was actually Leibowitz himself, and Francis is not allowed to take his vows for several years. He undertakes a project to make an “illuminated” copy of a particular blueprint made by Leibowitz himself that he discovered in the shelter for a “Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B,” though he has no idea what the blueprint actually means. He works on the copy intermittently for fifteen years before Leibowitz is finally canonized, and Francis is chosen to go to “New Rome” for the ceremony, bearing both the original blueprint and his illuminated copy as gifts. On the way he’s accosted by bandits who take the illuminated copy, presuming it’s the original. He makes it to the ceremony with the original, with the pope informing him that his effort in making the illuminated copy is what saved the original. The pope gives Francis some gold that Francis then takes back to the bandits’ encampment hoping to exchange for his illuminated copy. While waiting for the bandits, he sees a figure approaching in the distance that looks similar to the pilgrim from the beginning, but the bandits kill him before the pilgrim arrives.

Part 2: Fiat Lux (chs. 12-23, year 3174, 12 centuries after Flame Deluge)
Amidst rumors of war involving the ruler Hannegan and tribal leader Mad Bear, the scholar Thon Taddeo makes a request of Monsignor Marcus Apollo to request that the “Leibowitzian documents” be fetched from the Leibowitz Abbey to his collegium. The request is denied due to the dangers of imminent war, and eventually Thon Taddeo travels to the abbey himself, a moment that the abbey’s current leader Dom Paulo considers that which the past twelve centuries of the monks’ maintaining the memorabilia has all led up to. In preparation for the visit, Dom Paulo displaces a drunken poet from their guest quarters and goes to talk to his old friend Benjamin, who claims to have been alive for hundreds of years and who is one of few remaining Jews left. Around the time Thon Taddeo arrives at the abbey, one of the monks, Brother Kornhoer, succeeds in powering a lamp with electricity for the first time since the Flame Deluge, fortunate timing since it enables Thon Taddeo to be able to better discern the text of the old documents. The scholar is amazed at the wealth of information the monks have been sitting on and believes it a travesty that the documents have remained essentially hidden for so long. He predicts that men of science will soon rule, arguing with Dom Paulo about whether he condones the bloody expansion currently being waged by his half-brother Hannegan and saying that while he doesn’t condone it personally that his collegium will benefit from it and thus so will the human race. Thon Taddeo also predicts that “[a] century from now, men will fly through the air in mechanical birds. Metal carriages will race along roads of man-made stone. There will be buildings of thirty stories, ships that go under the sea, machines to perform all works,” also predicting these changes will occur via “violence and upheaval.” He further conjectures that the current race of man is not the original race but a clone race meant to be servants, believing the creators of such great things in the past could not have fallen so far, though Dom Paulo believes this is a way of avoiding man’s responsibility for the Flame Deluge. Despite their differences, Thon Taddeo hands over to Dom Paulo sketches that his escorts have made of the abbey for the purpose of using it as a military garrison in the upcoming conflicts. The section ends with the poet–whose glass eye that he referred to as his “removable conscience” Thon Taddeo took from him in jest–dying after inadvertently getting involved in a military skirmish on the plains. 

Part 3: Fiat Voluntas Tua (chs. 24-30, year 3781, 18 centuries after Flame Deluge)
Man once again has spaceships and atomic bombs. Word is out that “Lucifer is fallen,” and we get a press conference with the country’s Defense Minister asking him about why radiation counts on the Northwest Coast have significantly increased and the suspicion that hydrogen weapons exist in space as a workaround to a treaty banning nuclear arms. We then follow the current abbott of the Leibowitz Abbey, Dom Zerchi, who’s having trouble with translating technology as he’s trying to get a radiogram to a cardinal in New Rome about their plan Quo peregrinatur. An old beggar “clad in burlap” that people refer to as Lazarus still skulks about the area around the abbey. Two different nuclear detonations are reported in violation of the treaty, and tensions rise. Dom Zerchi asks Brother Joshua if he will head the Quo peregrinatur mission where all the abbey’s memorabilia will be transferred to space and the order will continue in a space colony; Joshua struggles with whether he’s called to be a leader but accepts, and a group of monks leaves for New Rome, where they’ll board a starship. Another blast happens in a large American city that kills two million, and the abbey takes in refugees affected by the fallout. Dom Zerchi fights with the doctor diagnosing people as hopeless cases about advising them to go to mercy camps, since voluntary euthanasia has been authorized under the Radiation Disaster Act but is against the religious beliefs of the order. Despite his promise to Zerchi, the doctor advises a woman to euthanize her extremely sick baby to spare its suffering; Zerchi, considering this murder, desperately tries to convince her otherwise but ultimately fails. He then goes to hear the confession of “an old tumater woman” named Mrs. Grales who has an “excrescence” growing from her shoulder that resembles a second head she’s named Rachel, and which her priest refused to baptize as she wished. Zerchi’s in the church with her when there’s another nuclear blast, and he hears a strange voice though Mrs. Grales is the only other person there. The building falls in on him, and as he’s dying slowly and painfully, forcing himself to try to endure since that’s what he wanted the radiation-afflicted mother and baby to do, Mrs. Grales comes up, except now it’s only Rachel talking, parroting what he’s saying and seeming very young. He tries to baptize her but she resists and ends up offering him a communion host he blesses and takes instead. Overwhelmed with gratitude that he’s perceived a state of “primal innocence” that he believes is what man lost when expelled from the Garden of Eden, he finally dies. Meanwhile, the monks board their starship as a mushroom cloud blooms on the horizon. The End. 

One of the most notable features of this book is that it spans several centuries, but this structure also produces the possible pitfall of losing a main character to carry us through the entire narrative–as with a lot of sci-fi, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, the book is more concept- than character-driven. In the first section we have a main character, Francis, who we’re with from the opening line and whose death at the end of Part 1 has the potential to leave the reader feeling adrift. The character we start the second part with, Marcus Apollo, seems positioned to be the focal character of that section but then turns out not to be; for Parts 2 and 3 the abbots of the Leibowitz Abbey, Dom Paulo and Dom Zerchi, become our main characters, though not to the extent that Francis is, as is reinforced by Part 2 starting with someone else (Marcus Apollo, who’s later reported killed as new rulers assert their dominance) and ending with a scene of the poet, and Part 3 starting not focalized on a character at all but with a general description of man. Man, or humans, really turns out to be the main character of the book–though it’s worth noting that individuals have to be focused on to maintain narrative momentum. The book is charting the cycle of man’s rise and fall, though actually in reverse order, with implications that this cycle will continue, since the monks survive to keep protecting the memorabilia at the end despite the likely destruction of earth. The cycle of man’s fall and rise is ruminated on by Dom Zerchi: 

Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall? Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, Rome, the Empires of Charlemagne and the Turk: Ground to dust and plowed with salt. Spain, France, Britain, America–burned into the oblivion of the centuries. And again and again and again.
Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork, helpless to halt its swing?

Something that fills the void of a single main character are certain recurrences between sections. Buzzards appear frequently, serving as transitions across centuries and as a symbol of death’s constancy; they eat the bodies of Francis at the end of Part 1 and the poet at the end of Part 2. At the end of Part 3 we no longer need them for transition’s sake since we’re no longer leaping ahead in time, though it also seems notable that we don’t end the overall book with death, but with life–after the monks survive to leave in their starship, we get a final passage about how the fallout dust is swept into the ocean, killing shrimp, but that a shark is able to swim to “cold clean currents,” with the last line of the novel being:

He was very hungry that season.

The fact that we end with a creature still alive–which seems very symbolic of the still alive but now isolated monks who have left with the memorabilia–could potentially be interpreted as a tentatively happy ending, but since we’ve seen that man’s survival ultimately engenders repeating the cycle of destruction, the implications of the ending become more sinister. 

The sinister nature of what seems like it should be a good thing extends to the mission of the monks at the Leibowitz Abbey. It’s interesting that their patron saint, whose becoming a saint is a big part of the plot in Part 1, was a scientist who the transistor diagram in Part 1 implies is in large part responsible for the nuclear destruction–this caused Leibowitz to lose faith in scientific knowledge (according to scripture-mimicking lore anyway) but ultimately he’s still martyred for some version of it when he becomes a booklegger. The wood carving of Leibowitz that we see one of Francis’s fellow monks carve in Part 1 resurfaces in both Parts 2 and 3, present in the abbott’s offices as they ruminate. 

This recurring carving is connected to another recurring figure, the old man in burlap, “burlap” being our indicator that these figures across the three different sections are connected. The burlap technically appears in the very first line of the book–a line which provides possibly no better example of immediately introducing acute tension–but without being called such specifically: 

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah might never have discovered the blessed documents, had it not been for the pilgrim with girded loins who appeared during that young novice’s Lenten fast in the desert.

The loins will turn out to be girded in burlap, which will be what causes Francis’s fellow monks to start the rumors that this pilgrim was actually Leibowitz himself, since this is what Leibowitz wore. In Part 2 the burlap is given to old Benjamin, an acquaintance of Dom Paulo who claims to have been alive several centuries, claiming at one point to have been mistaken for Leibowitz himself and thus directly connecting him to the pilgrim in Part 1: 

The priest looked puzzled. “Mistook you for whom? Saint Leibowitz? Now, Benjamin! You’re going too far.”

Benjamin repeated it in a mocking singsong: “Mistook me for a distant relative of mine–name of Leibowitz, so I throw pebbles at them.”

 Later in Part 2 Benjamin enters the abbey when Thon Tadio is lecturing about what he’s found there and declares after looking closely at him: “‘It’s still not Him.'” The Lazarus figure in Part 3 seems the least consequential, though does connect him back to Leibowitz when Zerchi thinks: 

Lazarus? There was, in the region, an old wives’ tale to the effect that–but what a shoddy sort of myth that was. Raised up by Christ but still not a Christian, they said. And yet he could not escape the feeling that he had seen the old man somewhere.

If the reader is picking up on the clues they’ll likely connect that Lazarus is familiar from the wood carving of Leibowitz we saw Zerchi considering earlier. The figure in burlap feels decreasingly significant to the plot in each successive part: he’s extremely integral to Part 1 and thus the rest of the book in helping Francis locate the diagrams that are implied to be what will, through the aid of Thon Tadio’s taking it from the abbey in Part 2, be the knowledge that will enable the reconstruction of nuclear arms. 

One recurrence that’s not in Part 1 but in 2 and 3 is the poet’s eyeball, in a way that again seems to be serving more thematic symbolism than actual plot. In Part 2 after Thon Tadio takes the poet’s eyeball, Dom Paulo explains that he calls it his “removable conscience,” an idea the scholar seems to like, and in Part 3 Dom Zerchi recalls a legend about this eyeball: 

No one, indeed, had ever found evidence that such a person as Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball had ever lived: the fable had probably arisen out of the story that one of the early Hannegans had been given a glass eyeball by a brilliant physical theorist who was his protégé–Zerchi could not remember whether the scientist had been Esser Shon or Pfardentrott–and who told the prince that it had belonged to a poet who had died for the Faith. 

One can see here how realities are distorted to the realms of myth over time, since we got to see the reality in Part 2, and in that reality the poet did not die “for the Faith” and was more a nuisance to the monks than an adherent of religion himself. This distortion is interesting in light of how prevalent religion–specifically Christian, even more specifically Catholicism–is in this centuries-spanning tale, with the original religious myths that existed before the Flame Deluge still in tact eighteen centuries after it, while most scientific knowledge did not survive. It’s a little hard to believe that religion would exist so unchanged, but the interplay between religion and science, with this religious order of the monks existing predominantly to preserve scientific knowledge, does provide for an interesting plot arc that can be sustained across such a long time span.  

 It’s worth mentioning that this book is not just worth reading for the plot, but also for the prose, with descriptions like

Disappointed, the black sky-horde rode back to altitude on their invisible elevators of hot air, then disbanded and dispersed toward their remoter aerial vigils.

This passage about buzzards early in the book humanizes them with the emotion of disappointment and and giving them their own religious-seeming rituals–“vigils.” It’s also echoed by a poetic description of a detonated atomic bomb near the end: 

The visage of Lucifer mushroomed into hideousness above the cloudbank, rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the Earth.

This description also likens a non-human thing to a more recognizable human form (if titans aren’t technically human) and also invites consideration of how man, supposedly created by God in his image, then created Lucifer, which in this description bears a subtle likeness to man’s image.

The symbolism of someone being mistaken for Leibowitz seems possibly symbolic of the monks mistaking their work as a good thing, mistaking knowledge for salvation. In this context the invocation of the Garden of Eden near the very end is significant: Zerchi gets to see a version of what man would look like if he hadn’t been cast out of the Garden of Eden, which is to say if he hadn’t eaten the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By preserving memorabilia of scientific knowledge, man is essentially partaking of this fruit again. Though Zerchi does not directly acknowledge this implication about the purpose of the abbey’s existence before he dies, the reader must. Man, by nature, can ultimately only destroy itself with this knowledge: the “progress” that is made with it is progress toward our own destruction. It is not so much the fault of the knowledge itself as the fault of the nature of man, which seems reinforced through the figure of Hannegan trying to consolidate his empire in the second section, when nuclear capabilities don’t exist yet. But figures like him will still exist when those capabilities are regained, rendering destruction inevitable. Which is maybe why one shouldn’t read this book in our current times…since ignorance is bliss, as we’ve seen.