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, an American woman 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 Bo'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.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Power
Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: “...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.” In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson (Parasites Like Us) juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope. (Jan.)
“An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.” —Pulitzer Prize citation
“All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book's cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” —The Wall Street Journal
“The Orphan Master’s Son performs an unusual form of sorcery, taking a frankly cruel and absurd reality and somehow converting it into a humane and believable fiction. It’s an epic feat of story-telling. It’s thrillingly written, and it's just thrilling period.” —Zadie Smith, Los Angeles Times
“A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of The Orphan Master’s Son. Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable. This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz… I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research…It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.” —The Washington Post
“Adam Johnson's remarkable novel The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, an entire nation that has conformed to the fictions spun by a dictator and his inner circle…Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity…We don't know what's really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.” —Wall Street Journal
"A harrowing, clever, incomparable riff on life in Kim Jong Il's North Korea” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Magnificently accomplished…Part thriller, part coming-of-age novel, part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is made sturdy by research…but what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author's imagination…rich with a sense of discovery…The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012” —The Daily Beast
"Providing a rare glimpse into one of the world’s least known countries, Adam Johnson weaves a tale of hardship, romance, and redemption in North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son." —National Geographic Traveler
“An incredibly vivid page-turner of a novel…Romance, coming-of-age tale, adventure and thriller all in one, this book is singular and not to be missed.” —The Huffington Post, 10 Best January Must-Reads
"The death of Kim Jong Il couldn't have come at a better time for novelist Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son is a richly textured political thriller about the hidden world of North Korea with all of its misery, violence and defiant acts of love under impossible circumstances. Stunning and evocative imagery abounds on every page.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Startling…Johnson's carefully layered story feels authentic...[He] writes light-footed prose, barely allowing harrowing glimpses of atrocity to register before accelerating onward. He resists the temptation to turn his subject matter into comic fodder, but never ignores the absurdity, provoking laughter with jagged edges that tends to die in your throat.” —Newsday
“Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. . . . Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[A] fantastical, careening tale…Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief.…Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“[A] vivid, violent portrait of a nation…[a] macabrely realistic, politically savvy, satirically spot-on saga. Johnson’s metathriller, spiked with gory intrigues and romantic subplots, is a ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory in a world where everyone’s “a survivor who has nothing to live for.” —Elle
“Ambitious, violent, audacious—and stunningly good.” —O Magazine
“Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.” —Abraham Verghese
“An addictive novel of daring ingenuity; a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty; and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love. A brave and impressive book.” —David Mitchell
“I've never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master's Son is a masterpiece.” —Charles Bock
Imagine a society in which the official political story tells only of happiness and prosperity, yet personal experience reveals the opposite. Imagine the resulting internal dissonance and the ways in which people might reconcile such opposing forces. This is the experience offered by Johnson (Parasites Like Us) in his novel of modern-day North Korea. Following the path of the hero's journey, young Pak Jun Do moves from an orphanage into a life of espionage, kidnapping, and torture, only to be given a new identity as the husband of the Dear Leader's favorite actress. With references to the classic American film Casablanca, Johnson's narrative portrays his hero as he makes his way through a minefield of corruption and violence, eventually giving his all so that his loved ones might have a better life. VERDICT Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 8/15/11.]—Susanne Wells, M.L.S., Indianapolis
Note to self: Do not schedule a vacation in North Korea, at least not without an escape plan. The protagonist of Johnson's (Parasites Like Us, 2003, etc.) darkly satisfying if somewhat self-indulgent novel is Pak Jun Do, the conflicted son of a singer. He knows no more, for "That was all Jun Do's father, the Orphan Master, would say about her." The Orphan Master runs an orphanage, but David Copperfield this ain't: Jun Do may have been the only non-orphan in the place, but that doesn't keep his father, a man of influence, from mistreating him as merrily as if he weren't one of his own flesh and blood. For this is the land of Kim Jong Il, the unhappy Potemkin Village land of North Korea, where even Josef Stalin would have looked around and thought the whole business excessive. Johnson's tale hits the ground running, and fast: Jun Do is recruited into a unit that specializes in kidnapping Koreans, and even non-Koreans, living outside the magic kingdom: doctors, film directors, even the Dear Leader's personal sushi chef. "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." So ponders Jun Do, who, specializing in crossing the waters to Japan, sneaking out of tunnels and otherwise working his ghostlike wonders, rises up quickly in the state apparatus, only to fall after a bungled diplomatic trip to the United States. Johnson sets off in the land of John le Carré, but by the time Jun Do lands in Texas we're in a Pynchonesque territory of impossibilities, and by the time he's in the pokey we're in a subplot worthy of Akutagawa. Suffice it to say that Jun Do switches identities, at which point thriller becomes picaresque satire and rifles through a few other genres, shifting narrators, losing and regaining focus and point of view. The reader will have to grant the author room to accommodate the show-offishness, which seems to say, with the rest of the book, that in a world run by a Munchkin overlord like Kim, nothing can be too surreal. Indeed, once Fearless Leader speaks, he's a model of weird clarity: "But let's speak of our shared status as nuclear nations another time. Now let's have some blues." Ambitious and very well written, despite the occasional overreach. When it's made into a film, bet that Kim Jong Il will want to score an early bootleg.
A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That's the genius of The Orphan Master's Son. Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mache creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable…Johnson's book is an audacious act of imagination: an intimate narrative about one of the most closed nations on Earth…Yet the setting is precisely rendered…I haven't liked a new novel this much in years…
The Washington Post
…Mr. Johnson does an agile job of combining fablelike elements with vivid emotional details to create a story that has both the boldness of a cartoon and the nuance of a deeply felt portrait. He captures the grotesque horrors that Jun Do is involved in, or witness to, even as he gives us a visceral sense of the world that his characters inhabit…In making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.
The New York Times