Book Review—The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel

Despite the preponderance of superficial on-line communication in these most fast paced of days, my reading over the last fourteen months convinces me that long form non-fiction and fiction writing may be as healthy as at any time in the recent past. That’s my way of saying, damn I’ve read a lot of amazing books recently.

None more so than Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel. I don’t write well enough to adequately credit Johnson for one of the more creative, imaginative, and haunting novels I’ve read in a long, long time. I’m sure you’ve seen a movie or two that left you completely drained as a result of the film’s suspenseful arc, quality of acting, and artistic beauty more generally. Immobilized, you just kind of stared blankly as the credits rolled. That’s how I felt upon finishing The Orphan Master’s Son. Unable to get off the bed, I wondered who is this extraordinary guy with the ordinary name, where does his imagination come from, and how and the hell did he write that? Total and complete awe.

Here are some answers from Johnson himself:

When I arrived at Pyongyang’s Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn’t gone so well. Even though I’d spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master’s Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I’d started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn’t matter that the story was a complete fiction–every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn’t played their parts, who’d spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries–of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings–are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn’t make sense without writing his role as well.

I agree with “Maine Colonial” the author of the top-rated of Amazon’s 69 Orphan Master’s Son reviews who wrote, “The book can be confusing, as it jumps from one narrator to another, one time period to another, one style to another, with no explanation. But it’s so vividly written, I didn’t worry about the shifts and came to enjoy the crazy-quilt style.”

Maine Colonial also references an interview Johnson gave in which he said he sees his book as a “trauma narrative,” in which a survivor of traumatic experiences tells stories that are similarly disjointed and that “bend and mix genres as characters attempt to patch their stories back together using the stories they find around them.”

In the weeks and months immediately following 9/11, I remember reading and hearing lots of analysis that suggested our intelligence forces couldn’t thwart the attack in part because no one could visualize one of that nature and scope. If Johnson ever tires of teaching creative writing at Stanford, it would behoove our nation’s security agencies to tap his unparalleled imagination.

Best read after Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

Grade—A.

One thought on “Book Review—The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel

  1. Thanks Ron. I was looking for my next fiction novel to read. I too have begun reading a lot more since I got my Kindle from my kids last Christmas. I don’t know what it is about this modern device that makes reading so much more accommodating but I’m glad it has.

    I go back and forth between history, especially biographies and fiction novels.

    I’m currently reading Growing Up Amish: A Memoir by Ira Wagler about his life before and after he left his community outside of Ontario, Canada at age 17. Part I reads a lot like Harper Lee’s account of childhood in rural America in the character of Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

    I look forward to The Orphan Master’s Son once I am done with this.

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