Like his first novel, Parasites like Us, Adam Johnson’s second, The Orphan Master’s Son, migrates from the outlandish to the fantastic. In the former, the exhumation of relics of a lost civilization brings calamitous results, and popcorn plays a critical role; in the latter we have North Korea, a dystopia so bizarre in its own right that it might have sprung from the mind of Philip K. Dick. Extrapolating from what can be known, Johnson (who has spent years in research), pushes further, coming up with an unforgettable, harrowing vision that approaches delirium.
The novel’s main character is Pak Jun Do, the son of a woman whose singing voice and beauty caused her to be stolen away to Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, to which the country’s few good things are inevitably transferred. Jun Do’s father is the embittered, merciless warden of Long Tomorrows, an orphanage that serves as a supply bin of children to be used for hazardous casual labor and who, if not taken into slavery by Chinese labor procurers, will eventually end up in the army. After the orphanage is abandoned — all but a few of the children dead from the famine of the 1990s — Jun Do is trained in “zero-light combat” for missions in the tunnels that penetrate into South Korea. Some years later, he is recruited for kidnapping assignments, making forays across the sea to Japan, in one instance to nab an opera singer for the Dear Leader’s collection of human trophies. (“The worst part was always the long trip back, listening to the abductees down in the hold, yelling, banging around as they struggled to get free of their ropes.”)
Transferred from that worthy employment, Jun Do is eventually sent to language school and moves on to radio surveillance conducted from the hold of a decayed fishing vessel. Here faraway voices come to him crackling through the ether, among them those of the families U.S. servicemen had abandoned in Asia, Chinese prisoners confessing their transgressions, two American women rowing around the world, and, most uncannily, a group of astronauts aboard a space station. Along the way, Jun Do’s survival has depended on his committing shameful acts, the unbearable memories of which further distill in him a sense of isolation, alienation, and distrust. Misfortune and a paranoid state’s expediency eventually land him in the gulag, in a work camp whose contribution to the revolutionary homeland is uranium mining and blood harvesting. Survival here is a matter of ruthlessness and creepy, esoteric devices.
Johnson’s depiction of North Korea is filled with richly worked quotidian detail, as well as scenes that are hyper-vivid and ghoulish. Jun Do’s journey is, in a word, Swiftian, a progress marked by grotesque imagery, distortions of reason, and pervasive irony: Starving people flit through graveyards at night to eat the flowers left by relatives of the dead; dogs are raised for food on the roofs of buildings, occasionally falling off. The real and surreal merge under the lens of Johnson’s formidable, all-encompassing imagination, his descriptive passages conveying the country’s terrible blend of totalitarianism, chaos, and individual tragedy. Scenes of catastrophe, especially, give glimpses of a repressed, impoverished society smashed into its wretched components. Here are the floods that inaugurated the famine:
Three weeks of rain, yet the loudspeakers said nothing of terraces collapsing, earth dams giving, villages cascading into one another. The army was busy trying to save the Sungli 58 factory from the rising water, so the Long Tomorrows boys were given ropes and long-handled gaffs to try to snare people from the Chongjin River before they were washed into the harbor. The water was a roil of timber, petroleum tanks, and latrine barrels. A tractor tire turned in the water, a Soviet refrigerator. They heard the deep booms of boxcars tumbling along the river bottom. The canopy of a troop carrier spun past, a screaming family clinging to it. Then a young woman rose from the water, mouth wide but silent, and the orphan called Bo Song gaffed her arm — right away he was jerked into the current. Bo Song had come to the orphanage a frail boy, and when they discovered he had no hearing, Jun Do gave him the name Un Bo Song, after the 37th Martyr of the Revolution, who’d famously put mud in his ears so he couldn’t hear the bullets as he charged the Japanese.
As he moves through North Korea’s nightmare world, Jun Do repeatedly comes upon the bleak evidence of personal tragedy, among both acquaintances and strangers. Seated in the back of a prison vehicle, he sees “spinning in eddies of wind through the floorboards…the shells of hard-boiled eggs, a dozen of them, perhaps. This was too many eggs for a single person to eat. And nobody would share their eggs with a stranger, so it must have been a family.” In contrast to this miserable land, the sea offers Jun Do evidence of an enormous world of plenty, in one instance, the sight of a “large vessel creeping by, its deck carpeted with new cars. As it passed…the moonlight flashed in rapid succession off a thousand new windshields.” Later, in another arresting scene, the crew, seining for shrimp, pull up a great haul of Nike athletic shoes, presumably washed from some freighter. (“The Pilot was marveling over a size fifteen, over what manner of human would take that size and the Machinist had created a tall pile of shoes he intended for his wife to try.”)
The novel is put together through crafty, even devious story work, from shuffled slices of memory and from several angles and voices: Jun Do’s, a torturer’s, and that of the loudspeakers that spew propaganda into every house. These last extol the Dear Leader’s virtues and the country’s unbounded prosperity, the envy of all nations, and shape daily events into inspiring, didactic tales. In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one character explains, “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.”
That observation is the book’s central theme and a conceit demonstrating the effect on reality of widespread, overwhelming fear. It is also the portal through which Jun Do escapes the gulag. He seizes the identity of a powerful general and is launched upon a different life and destiny, his fate joined to that of a movie star, Sun Moon, and her children. It is an improbable feat, of course, but it is perfectly in keeping with the novel’s spirit and intricacies. Further, the events and scenes that follow open another vein of rich material, including an interlude with the Dear Leader himself. Jun Do’s audacity in using the state’s own means of control for his purposes shows the irrepressibility of individual will — or at least its possibility — under even the most brutal regimes. But for some reason, Johnson, whose work is otherwise free from thematic plod, decided to bang the lesson home by including a parallel with the movie Casablanca, a crude element, completely out of place in the novel’s intoxicating amalgam of imagery and irony. Except for that misstep, the novel is a thoroughly exhilarating work of imagination and terrible poignancy.