Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson


“There was a Japanese man. He took his dog for a walk. And then he was nowhere. For the people who knew him, he’d forever be nowhere.”

Stanford professor Adam Johnson has written a book about North Korea. If I left the review at this sentence and said no more about the novel, you’d probably have quite a few opinions about it. How will a Western writer take us to such a different world, the last curtained-off corner on the other side of the Cold War? Should he?

Johnson’s previous short story collection and novel are both categorised as ‘speculative fiction’, and he’s told The Paris Review that to him, “North Korea is science fiction.” In The Orphan Master’s Son (which won Johnson a Pulitzer in April), it becomes a dystopia, a sandbox where our familiar preoccupations – cinema, sex, nuclear families, workplace politics – are defamiliarised, challenged and reinforced.

The novel’s likeable hero, Jun Do (pronounced “John Doe”) believes that the especially harsh treatment meted out by the master of the orphanage he grew up in, coupled with the fact that he’s never adopted, means that this man must be his father. For this reason he believes that he is loved. He also loses the need to search for his true identity that’s at the centre of the traditional Western bildungsroman, instead searching for a story to make his own. Johnson’s portrayal of a world where people are less important than their stories gives a satisfying feeling as Jun Do consciously writes his own story along with Johnson.

“Stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

The world offered to Jun Do is one where stories are extracted by torture, distorted by lies, and controlled by anything other than the individual. Early on a character tells him, “There’s no such thing as facts.”

What follows? Training as a ‘dark fighter’; a stint as a professional kidnapper (this is one of the hardest details to believe, but absolutely based on fact; Japanese and South Koreans, including Kim Jong Il’s sushi chef and a pair of actors forced to make a Communist movie for him, have been kidnapped into North Korea); encounters with Americans on a diplomatic trip partly inspired by Johnson’s visit to the country as a “VIP tourist”; a few shifts in identity, and a climactic love story.

The Orphan Master’s Son  started off as a short story named ‘The Best North Korean Short Story of 2005’, which is retained as one of three jostling narratives in a 450-page epic. Johnson’s choice to make his characters speak in a casual vernacular, using American slang and speech patterns, makes this ambitious story easy to speed through and easy to enjoy; as does the feeling that the reader is in the hands of a master of the form: this is first-class fiction by an extremely accomplished writer. It’s a self-conscious and thoughtful book, with the kind of wide-ranging, fluctuating cast that shows the beauty of the real big novel.

But for a novel this large in scale, this well-researched, well-written and thoughtful, The Orphan Master’s Son feels shallower than it should.

“Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous.”

Johnson’s said the book was kick-started by the realisation that the ‘spin’ he derided during President Bush’s administration (this book’s been almost a decade in the making) was in fact better defined as ‘propaganda’. But in The Orphan Master’s Son, anxieties about changes in Western society are placed, amplified, in a distant and unreachable continent, rather than discussed in an area closer to the writer’s experience. I felt a niggling feeling of disappointment grow as Johnson wavered between two different approaches: writing about a real North Korea, and writing about a postmodern playground for Western preoccupations.

He put seven years of research into The Orphan Master’s Son, but disturbs the characters’ naturalistic speech with campy, self-mocking party broadcasts; and disturbs the feeling of immersion with repeated reminders of the Western readers’ ‘real world’ – its coloured condoms, benevolent military and pet dogs.“I had to leave much of the darkness out of my book,’ he says. “[It] was so bleak that I had to cut it out. You couldn’t read it.” So this isn’t fiction set in a realistic North Korea. This is a picture-book Korea. A curio state.

He’s written an Orwellian dystopia; but it’s hard to connect its exposures of cruelty, hypocrisy and individual powerlessness to our experience of our own societies, when feisty CIA agents regularly pop up offering unconditional support, motherly Texans and barbeque. What comes across isn’t the creeping feeling of recognition of an underlying current in real life, which dystopian fiction (like Gary Shteyngart’s excellent Super Sad True Love Story) provokes so well, but a laugh which separates the reader from the world – as when the concept of ‘exercise’ is mentioned, and a character responds, “I’ve heard that. That Americans do pointless labour for fun.”

No-one would argue that the DRPK regime, as portrayed in shocking memoirs like Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang, is superior to, well, the pet dogs and barbeque. But the constant presence of the West as a promised land opposed to the reality of Jun Do, heroine Sun Moon, and other characters, can seem like an overly-simple solution to the thought experiment of life in an autocratic, propaganda-driven society.

I found the first half of the novel, with its speculative examination of the characters’ interior lives, more engaging than the later half in which Casablanca seamlessly becomes a universal touchstone and escape to the US an unquestioned goal.

“Commander Ga stopped translating for whole passages when all that was needed were the emotions crossing the faces of this man Rick and the woman Ilse who loved him.”  

The Orphan Master’s Son was published in paperback in February 2013 and his since won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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