With its propulsive drive, vividly realized characters, and profound observations about soul and society, Pulitzer Prize–finalist Susan Choi's novel is as thrilling as it is lyrical, and it confirms her place as one of the most important novelists chronicling the American experience.
Lee is a math professor at a second-tier university in the Midwest. When a mail bomb goes off in the office of the star computer scientist next door, Lee is slow to realize that students and colleagues have begun to suspect that he's the Brain Bomber, an elusive terrorist whose primary targets appear to be academic hotshots.
In the midst of campus tumult over the bombing, a letter arrives from a figure in Lee's past, which forces him to revisit events and choices that shaped his failed marriage, his life as a father, and his work as a scholar of middling achievement. While Lee becomes further ensnared in the FBI's attempts to find the bomber, the churned-up regrets from his past bring him to an examination of extremes in his own life as he tries to exonerate himself, face his tormentor from his past, and atone for his failings.
"this is jhumpa lahiri meets zadie smith (look what you've done, jhumpa and zadie! turned a whole generation of women novelists to your stark, in the former case, and bleakly humorous, in the latter, demolition of the multiple barriers the human psyche erects to keep itself looking normal) meets dostoevsky. seriously. what a tour de force. susan choi takes the concept of "scene" so seriously that her scenes turn into long long chapters, even when all she describes is a trip from home to campus. the scope is definitely 19th century. this is writing that leaves no stone unturned in its analysis of the movements of the human heart (george eliot? flaubert?). but there is also a nabokovian pleasure in delving into perversity and pettiness. except that, since this delving is from the point of view of the close-third-person protagonist, these agonies of disclosure are stained and rotted by self-doubt, self-contempt, and a feverish, pathological loneliness. lee is the most tortured person i've ever met, either in real life or in fiction.
at the same time (enter zadie and jhumpa) there are all the hallmarks of post-post-modernity in this novel: immigration, cultural impasses, the horrors of academia, the ungraspability of the constructed self, technology, and, of course, terrorism (the novel starts with and centers on a bombing).
i'm just at the 100 page mark. this is not fast going. but wow, susan choi, how could you write this and sleep at night?
now the story is picking up -- lee is a suspect in the bombing -- and while this makes for faster reading, you feel that something is lost (not a bad thing, just a regular loss, one of the losses one gets all the time, every day: hours passing, meals ending, goodbye, goodbye). it was really crazy to see lee at his purest, most solipsistic tortured. now he's got something to be tortured about, and the reader's puzzlement, her... anger? starts being directed elsewhere, i.e. at those brutish FBI people. lee becomes the victim, which makes him likable. sea change!
wow. i just finished this extraordinary book. more on overall impressions tomorrow. it's a masterpiece. i'm surprised it didn't get nominated for any of those awards they are always so eager to give women of color (no slight in the least bit intended -- choi would totally deserve at least a nomination). what a book. i'm reeling.
what an accomplishment. i don't understand why we don't hear about susan choi at least as much as we hear about jhumpa lahiri. the protagonist of this book, lee, is a late-middle-aged asian man, a math professor in an unnamed mid-western college. and already things get strange, because lee's original country, which he left in his late twenties and which was at the time occupied by a repressive communist regime, is never named either. and the time frame doesn't quite work (or at least it didn't for me). like: his next-door colleague, the guy who gets bombed in the first line of the book, is a computer scientist working with dial-up. in fact, he's a pioneer in computer science. so, this is the very beginning of this book, and you read the words "dial-up:" what do you do? you locate yourself immediately in the nineties. but then the FBI shows up, and they have snap phones. did we have snap phones in the 90s? i don't think so. so you readjust your focus, but also keep your eyes peeled for clues. and suddenly you have cassette tapes...
to be sure, choi gives a million time-clues. in fact, she tells us at what approximate age lee graduated from grad school, and what year that was. but i found myself doing the math over and over, and bad as i am at basic arithmetic, i don't typically find myself counting so much in a book. oh wait, it's a book about mathematicians! is that why choi makes us count so much?
same goes with space. once lee leaves his little town, the geographical markers are awfully precise, down to interstate turns. but it's as if his town and state, much like his time, were sunk in fog, slightly off, slightly murky, slightly out of sync with the rest of reality (the reader's reality).
and this is such a great quality of this book, because it makes it vague and mysterious and, also, makes you pay attention. and pay attention is the thing you must do most when you read this book.
which brings me to the what's-this-about question. this book changes aboutness every 100 pages or so. ultimately, i think, it's about love and family, spouses, children, but probably someone else would find the aboutness to be different. these issues are the ones that talked to me. the invisible children that live (more and more noticeably) just under the surface of this novel are its center, and the crotchety and failed fatherhood of lee the very heart of this amazing novel.
it's lovely that the protagonist should be an east-asian guy living in the midwest. even though he is hardly ever described in terms of otherness, you, if you are like me, i.e. a white reader, herself an immigrant, have his otherness imprinted on the inside of your cornea at all times. this is vastly helped by the fact that choi dwells SO MUCH on his physicality -- his clothes, his thinness, his age, his scrawny body, his smallness, the fatigue lines on his face, etc. every time she does that, you are forced to see his asian face. and, if you are like me, what you see is a kind of inscrutability (which is racist, but then this book is also about making us question our subtle racism) because you know that's what lee's fellow midwesterners see, and what you'd see if you were one of them.
and this is certainly not aided by the fact that, in the book, lee is almost always tongue-tied, paralyzed, terrified, blundering, and horribly self-conscious. also, he makes a point of disdaining the most basic social conventions, and seems entirely out of tune with everyone else, as if he were so shy and misanthropic and self-conscious that he didn't have one thought to spare for anyone but his own agonizing self.
so it comes as a surprise when choi goes into flashback mode and you discover than a younger lee was, if not more sociable, capable of passion and, even more surprising, of terrifying outbursts of rage.
and this is another lesson of this book: that we don't know each other. we don't know each other's motivations, desires, inner selves, potentialities, and future actions. we can't predict. the only thing we can do is talk, and connect, and try to find out.
choi writes amazing prose. i can't wait to read her other books. she's a master."
Jo (5 out of 5 stars)