Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

This very long, very dark, and highly imaginative work by Adam Johnson forces upon the reader a series of distasteful sensations, only a few of which are horror, fury, hatred, injustice, and revenge. But by the end, one also experiences hope, compassion, sincerity, integrity, and love. Thoughts surface, submerge, roil in the mind during the days spent reading this huge novel, leaving one as drained and unsettled after a session with it as if one had “eaten bitterness.” Welcome to North Korea. If you’ve ever wondered, this is one man’s take.

Much has been written of Johnson’s seven years constructing this story. He had done research, and in several interviews pointed to memoirs of escapees, like The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and one recently published by Penguin, called Escape from Camp 14. Johnson undoubtedly used news reports to reimagine the visits of western envoys as part of his story, but the blackness central to the society was difficult for me to believe. However, in one interview published in the Paris Review, Johnson denies he showed us the real blackness: “…I had to leave much of the darkness out of my book. The real darkness of the gulag there was so bleak that I had to cut it out. You couldn’t read it.” It is just as well, then, for this book was quite black enough to leave one feeling untethered.

The novel is broken into two parts. The first half tells of a young man growing up and finding his way in a society that seems confusing and dangerous: innocuous behaviors have consequences that are out of proportion to their intent. It is difficult to read this half of the novel. I am not enamored of character-as-victim when the consequences are so dire.

Relief comes immediately in the second half of the book, when we perceive a shift in the balance of power, from state authority to the citizenry. The young man of Part I, Jun Do (perhaps “John Doe”), decides to he will write his own obituary and becomes an actor rather than merely acted upon. We are told of this change in the power ratio in an ingenious series of flashbacks as he is being interrogated over a period of time. The interrogator is the voice in this section of the novel, and we see the power of Jun Do’s non-confession on his listeners.

I think, perhaps, only an American could have written this book. A novel of the same subject written by a European may be more philosophical, literary, and well…sad. This is literature, but it is brash, brazen, curious, and a little like America’s pop culture: the hero molds his own story and puts it right out there for everyone’s delectation. He doesn’t lie, but he spins the truth, and keeps on spinning to the end. The story is also a remake of that American classic film, Casablanca, in which the hero with a great love for a dame allows her to escape to freedom while he deals with the demons that would hold her captive.

I am not going to deny the first part of this book was difficult and agonizing for me to read, but I urge readers not to forsake the book before you reach the middle if you are at all interested in the subject. In Part Two we finally see a man rather than a victim and the character of the book changes completely after this break. It is fiction in the form of a prison diary. If you’ve ever read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, or Elie Wiesel’s Night, you will remember how riveting books of desperation and depravation can be.

And yes, I did order Escape from Camp 14 to read after this. I want to see how much parallels what Johnson created, and because one’s palate for ordinary fiction is rather spoiled after such a book as this. Sometimes great literature demands more of us. While I am not ready to place this in the “greats” file yet, it is big, brave, unblinking. Johnson has a unique voice that cannot be mistaken for another. He brings to us news of the condition of people in North Korea, an issue we need to examine.

An interview of Adam Johnson by Charlie Rose about this book can be viewed here.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Fantastic review -- you've got me totally cowed about writing mine, now! It'll be nowhere close to yours -- you've made such great points (love your thoughts on the American-ness of it!)

    1. This book is intimidating, not me. I'd love to see what you thought of it. Wonder if you saw Nancy O's review? She thought it was terrific, "best book she's read this year!"

    2. Actually, I have to admit that since then it's sort of faded back in the number two or three spot. Not so strange when you think of it, since I've read a number of good books this year. Great review!

  2. It took me a while to get into this one, but I was blown away by the end. I didn't like it as much as some other books I read this year, but it affected the most. I also started ordering books on North Korea, and I can't really imagine a better endorsement of a book with a humanitarian purpose. Excellent review by the way.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this book. Not only very well written and researched but quite different and unique. You can't help think about how we take our freedom for granted & how difficult it must be to live in a dictatorship.

    Micky Johnson (Fishing The Deschutes River)