I had never heard of Adam Johnson before. The local library had a display of short story collections, as part of their year-long reading challenge that I somehow missed signing up for; I had already grabbed Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman, but something about the cover of Fortune Smiles appealed to me. It seemed pop-art-y, for some reason evoking my memory of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay even though they don’t look very similar at all.
I liked Fortune Smiles
From that, I learned that the book that put Adam Johnson on the map was all about North Korea. I put it on hold and added it to the enormous pile of library books that are currently sitting on my couch; I’m tearing through them as quickly as possible in anticipation of NaNo, knocking out all the novels before I dive into the dauntingly-huge short story collections that remain.
Come Sunday evening, it was The Orphan Master’s Son‘
The book is dark, depressing, haunting. It paints a vision of the DPRK that is unrelentingly awful. My understanding is that it was painstakingly researched, that life there is really just as terrible as the book shows, and even if it’s only a tenth as bad as the book makes it out to be, the North Korean regime’s iron grip on its populace is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. This is something I knew in the abstract, of course, but reading about it–even in fictional form–makes it much more visceral, much more real despite the irreality of a story.
And, more than anything else, this is a book about stories. The DPRK is a place where everyone lies as a matter of course, from morning until night when the power goes out, because to tell the truth is to implicate yourself in doings which officially never happen, even though they absolutely do. The ability to lie on demand, to concoct a tale that cloaks events in such a way as to satisfy your interrogators, is just as critical a survival tactic as knowing which flowers are edible, or how to set a snare to capture a swallow and eat it. (Both of these acts are illegal, of course. Everything is, other than worship of the Dear Leader.)
The Orphan Master’s Son questions the meaning of identity, both personal and national, when survival requires that identity to be made of lies. It does not look away from horror, from the everyday evils of a brutal despotic regime that starves an entire nation to death while convincing them that their demise is righteous and just. It had passages that actually forced me to look away from the book for a bit, utterly defeated by the hopelessness and depravity. And it also finds hope buried deep within that unblinking despair.
Like the stories that the characters have to tell in order to survive another day, the story of The Orphan Master’s Son has holes, problems, issues. And like those stories, it is not about being true, it is about being convincing.
I am not sure I have ever been so convinced.