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. 

-SCR

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