Why does Susan Choi tell the story of this bombing through Lee? What's so important about him? What is this novel ultimately about? Does it tell us anything about terrorism?
It is possible that Susan Choi tells the story through Lee in order to illustrate the incalculable damage innocent civilians suffer when they are suspected of grave acts of terrorism. Choi's spotlight on Lee allows us to imagine what we will do in the instance we are presumed guilty on the basis of surface, circumstantial evidence alone and not on the truth of the matter.
If anything, the novel illustrates the true collateral damage of terrorism; in the midst of terror, the guilty and the innocent are caught up in a spiraling cycle of death and destruction, seemingly without recourse to true justice.
Briefly, Lee is a professor of computer studies at a third-rate university. He is languishing in his tenured position and unhappy with his life. Having endured two divorces, Lee is the quintessential loner who finds himself alienated from campus culture and the modern existence. Meanwhile, his colleague, Rick Hendley, is a well-liked and popular professor, a genius to his starry-eyed students. Rick, of course, irritates Lee terribly.
When Rick is killed by a mysterious bomb in his office, Lee is initially relieved that he's not the victim. His relief is short-lived when he discovers, however, that he's now a "person of interest" in the investigation. Susan Choi skilfully portrays the anger, frustration, and emotional pain an innocent man suffers when he's convicted in the court of public opinion even before he's had his day in court. The harvest of terrorism is frighteningly inclusive: the victims themselves, their loved ones, and innocent bystanders are all enmeshed in a nightmare drama of horror and death, from which there seems to be no return.
The portrayal of Lee is so important because through him, Choi paints the picture of every-man. Lee isn't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. He is jealous, self-absorbed, and often callous in his judgments of people. His first marriage began as the result of an affair with a colleague's wife. When his first wife, Aileen, lost custody of her son, Lee was secretly happy that he wouldn't have to have another man's son around. Lee's very human nature reminds us that anyone can be embroiled in a nightmarish situation beyond his ugliest dreams. The story compels us to think about what we would do if we were in Lee's situation.
It's a question worth considering as we ponder the dangers of our time.
For a great summary of the novel, please refer to the eNotes link below.