“And don’t forget, citizens: The ban on stargazing is still in effect.”
Adam Johnson’s latest novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is one of those rare works of high ambition that follow through on all of its promises. Set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it examines both the Orwellian horrors of life in the DPRK and the voyeurism of Western media. North Korea is a two-way mirror, a country in lockdown; we can see in, but they can’t see out. North Koreans’ isolation and reliance on shameless state propaganda for any understanding of the outside world, or even of their own country, create a culture of such outlandish misinformation that the Western media and its audience often respond with laughter. Incredulous, horrified, uncontrollable laughter, more indicative of disturbance and fear than amusement. As outsiders, spectators, we have no way to connect: There is either the black humor of a country where Kim Il-Sung created the world and Kim Jong-il controls the weather, or the tragedy of unrelenting state-perpetrated murders, where almost 1 percent of the population are sent to die in concentration camps. We see a case study in mass manipulation, or a crowd of faceless victims. Neither is conducive to true understanding.
All the more credit to Adam Johnson, then, for even attempting to set a novel in the DPRK. The Orphan Master’s Son is Johnson’s third work — he has published a book of short stories, Emporium, and a novel, Parasites Like Us — and he appears to be in his natural element of black dystopian humor. Johnson’s great strength lies in the bait-and-switch: He lures his readers in with comedy and then overwhelms us with the tragedy that underscores every joke. He makes unexamined caricatures human again. His novel is essential reading for its cynical, media-swamped audience; it is one of those rare vindications of fiction’s potential, its power to humanize the Other and light the way of empathy and understanding.
It is important to note that this is not A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich; Johnson does not confine himself to grim realism, but instead races through North Korea at a breakneck speed, like a crazed tourist guide who won’t let you out of the car. His North Korean everyman, Jun Do (consideration of the similarities to the appellation “John Doe” is encouraged but not required) is propelled through a dizzying array of settings and identities, from North Korea to Texas, from an orphan to a state-manufactured national treasure. Our hero’s childhood is dispensed of in 10 pages. His entry into the army and training as a tunnel fighter occupies one paragraph, after which point he emerges, blinking in the light of day, to fulfill his duties as our unwitting guide to North Korea. Nor does The Orphan Master’s Son attempt to describe a representative sample of North Korean daily life; there is something else going on here. The reader — attached to Jun Do but never quite sure of who he is, introduced to a large cast of complex characters but never really offered a chance to settle in with them — is getting both a narrative and literary experience of powerlessness and alienation. As readers, we better understand Jun Do’s life because it must adhere to the narrative imposed by the state, and the reader is similarly powerless: powerless in the hands of the author, powerless in our attachment to Jun Do, powerless, therefore, to the state which controls him and has created a country where citizens can be relocated and put to work at a bureaucrat’s whim, never to see their old lives again. It is an unsettling literary experience, to say the least.
There are certain subjects useful for coming-of-age stories. Miserable childhoods or educations are fertile soil, as are a character’s troubled relationship with his father or loss of his first love. Jun Do, whose childhood is spent under the brutal conditions of an orphanage, tolerates all of the above with either silent stoicism or a complete lack of awareness, or fantasies of love and acceptance. Imagining that the Orphan Master is his father, and his mother a dead or otherwise absent opera singer, Jun Do reveals both his desperation for protection and family, and the tragic assumptions of a culture of patriarchal authority and violence:
The surest evidence that the woman in the [Orphan Master’s] photo was Jun Do’s mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do’s face, the Orphan Master saw… a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy’s shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.
One might find Jun Do’s desire to claim a sadist as his father perplexing, but it is this very sadism (coupled with the woman in the photo, the promise of a complete family) that attracts him. The orphans are loaned out to perform unpleasant or dangerous work, held apart as the offspring of dissidents. This early dislocation and detachment from society lends a fierce joy to the immediacy of a burning coal shovel: At least someone cares enough to come that close.
These shifts from Western to North Korean perception are implemented gracefully throughout the novel. Witness Jun gazing at his possibly deceased shipmate’s wife, with whom he strikes up a brief friendship: “Though he beheld her through the oceany vision of newly opened eyes, it was clear she was a true beauty — tall and square-shouldered, yet cloaked in a soft layer of baby fat. Her eyes were large and unpredictable and black bobbed hair framed a round face.” We can see the beauty in this image, though it does not match our own ideal, and we can also see where it came from: cheerful, luridly-colorful propaganda posters. A rosy-cheeked, Communist-fed young peasant, swinging her sickle towards a bountiful rice harvest: It is an image as fanciful as our own insect-limbed models, Frankenstein’d together out of various other not-quite-perfect model-objects, that similarly masquerade as representations of reality.
Jun Do never need contemplate his own character or past traumas, because they are immaterial to the lives he will be slotted into, where everything from job to marriage is imposed by the state and subject to its whims. En route to another assignment, Jun Do watches his latest home disappear: “The town suddenly looked like one of those happy villages they paint on the side of ration buildings. Going over the hill, there was only a plume of steam rising high from the cannery, a last sliver of ocean, and then he could see nothing. Real life was back again…” The implication, of course, is that every home is a waking dream, a happy village that, upon close inspection, is only a mural on the side of a warehouse. “Real life” is the time in between, when Jun Do encounters the godlike powers that control his life, when its besuited agents come to take him away again. “Real life” is the physical experience of his own powerlessness. “Real life” is a ride in a black van, destination unknown.
The first part of The Orphan Master’s Son is titled “The Biography of Jun Do,” the second “The Confession of Commander Ga.” The Biography deals in outlines and borders: as an agent of the government, Jun Do is shuttled into positions that carry him beyond the boundaries of his former life. He is assigned kidnapping jobs, shrimp-poaching jobs, “diplomatic” missions. As he travels to and fro bearing abduction victims and American DVDs, he struggles with the dissonance between the lies that constitute his culture and his own observations. On a boat in a quest for foreign spies, Jun Do intercepts a radio signal from the International Space Station and tunes in to a friendly Russian-American chess match. His shipmate utters the unsayable: “They’re in space together,” he said. “They’re supposed to be our enemies, but they’re up there laughing and screwing around… You were wrong. They are doing it for peace and fucking brotherhood.” Far below, the North Korean crew drifts along on a rickety craft, imagining enemies on all sides, finding that the realities are much more complicated. As the contradictions build, as Jun Do experiences the impossible again and again, the reader also learns the depths of his misinformation. Every interaction teaches us just as much about Jun Do’s homeland as it teaches Jun Do about the outside world.
The lessons do not flatter either side. On his brief diplomatic mission to America, Jun Do visits a Texas ranch (home to a politician referred to simply as “The Senator”) that “had been prepared to give the Koreans a taste of Texas life.” Just as American visitors to North Korea are shown only empty model villages and prohibited from unscripted conversation, Jun Do and his fellow diplomats are treated to an equally constructed facade. I have never lived in Texas, but I assume that the average Texan does not employ full-time maids or own a ranch, stock pond, or shooting range. The Senator’s ranch is an American fantasy, abounding with natural resources, a supposedly self-sufficient system whose existence nonetheless relies on the American political machine/ class system which has provided the Senator with his resources. Who is the Senator, really? His life on the ranch reflects his public life as much as a model North Korean village reflects a real North Korean village: that is, not at all. Recall our own George Bush, clearing brush on his ranch for the ever-present cameras. It is a constructed fantasy of individual, interior freedom, an American Juche
The American cult of self-determination, likewise, never extends far beyond U.S. borders. After all, we handed North Korea over to its eventual oppressors with typically calculating calm, sacrificing one population for the safety of another (and of our troops, with all those Communist dominoes falling around them). Two young American colonels, under perfunctory orders to partition the Korean peninsula and appease the Soviets, took a map into an empty room, discussed the matter for 20 minutes, and drew an arbitrary line at the 38th parallel, useful and accurate insofar as “we got the capital”. Our freedom-dignifying and humanitarian rhetoric never leaves the ranch, so to speak.
Under unblinking portraits of the Great and Dear Leaders, Johnson’s characters are well aware of their own powerlessness. Plans, attachments, hopes, and love all depend on an individual’s sense of self-determination. The totalitarian state’s special power to snatch people up from their own lives, blur them out of photographs, and demonstrate that this life, at this place and time, has encountered the finality of death — the power to decontextualize, isolate and “re-educate” its citizens at will — is formulated to produce a country of people with no home, no attachments, no illusions of personal freedom or power.
Yet the characters are irrepressibly human, and we can feel the tendrils of friendship and love and admiration growing between them just as they are once again uprooted and tossed into a different town, a different job, entertaining no hope of seeing one another again. Their stilted yet fully emotional relationships lead to bleak, elliptical, almost Carver-like exchanges like:
“What do you think of my new suitcase?” she asked. “I had to barter for it.”
“What did you barter?”
“Don’t be an ass,” she said. “Can you believe I didn’t own a suitcase?”
“I guess you never went anywhere.”
“I guess I never went anywhere,” she said to herself.
She ladled some rice water into a plastic cup for him.
He took a drink and asked, “Are there dogs on the roof?”
“That’s life on the top floor,” she said. “Broken elevator, leaky roof, toilet vents. I don’t even notice the dogs anymore. The housing council’s breeding them. You should hear them on Sundays.”
“What are they breeding them for? Wait — what happens on Sundays?”
“The guys at the karaoke bar say that dogs are illegal in Pyongyang.”
“That’s what they say.”
“Civilization,” she said.
Johnson simply points out where we all get our identities: from the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves. This is the device which turns a potentially over-plotted novel into a brilliant commentary on the relationship between society and individual personality: Everyone in the novel has been informed and shaped by stories: honest fictions or propaganda masquerading as truth. Then the stories start to come alive, to devour their audience and subjects; the subsequent narrative demonstrates the dangers of a governmental monopoly on information, tantamount to a monopoly on truth, or the eradication of the distinction between fiction and reality. Why tell a fairy tale when you have the power to make the tale a reality? Why entertain the idea of fiction at all, when real people can be recreated as characters? Dr. Song, a canny government agent, explains to Jun Do that in North Korea, “stories are factual… the story is more important than the person.” He warns: “If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
This conflict between narrative and personality moves the plot into unexpected places. Johnson’s sense of humor never deserts him, nor does he forget the purpose of his irony. One of the more comical voices of the novel, delivering a series of oppressively cheerful dispatches from DPRK radio, lauds the remarkable deeds and various talents of the Great Leader, provides recipes for foods like “Pumpkin Rind Soup,” and presents a national narrative which seems almost naively upbeat and optimistic until we are shown the dark machinations behind a facade of implacable patriotism. Jun Do’s involvement in the brutal abduction of a Japanese opera singer provides an unsettling context to the radio voice that earlier introduced listeners and readers to Pyongyang’s new star, exhorting them to “return to your industrial lathes and vinalon looms… and double your output quotas as you listen to this Lovely Visitor sing the story of the greatest nation in the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea!” Doublespeak, alive and well.
The tone of the second movement, “The Confession of Commander Ga,” is set by this stridently peppy radio narrative, which, in choosing Jun Do as a character, bears out Dr. Song’s warning: “If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” The plot becomes Shakespearean in both complexity and the sheer density of improbable mistaken identities. Dubbing it the “Story of the Year,” the radio dispatches outline an absurd narrative of Jun Do impersonating a high-ranking military officer, committing treason, and receiving redemption at the hands of the Dear Leader. The radio episodes segue seamlessly into Johnson’s objective accounts of the “real” story, and we see how the cartoonish radio broadcasts have distorted the “true” course of events (though at this point, the reader may be feeling queasy about believing anything they read, ever). Most compellingly, we are also shown how the climax of the narrative was staged from the start (in a way that only an insane dictator and/or author could effect).The story, once told, can be revised and re-written: one character, who provides the only first-person account in the novel, is a professional torturer, an artist of pain; his job is not only to extract confessions, but to destroy his victims’ identity. (He describes his work as ultimately helpful to his victims, the only alternative to execution.) The interrogation is secondary to the pain applied: “Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity– the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing… There’s no way around it: to get a new life, you have to trade in your old one.” He refers to the false confessions as “biographies.”
This too-familiar process of extracting false but convenient confessions illuminates the journey from truth to fiction. In the end, Jun Do becomes a martyr to his own legend, but his exposure to reality outside the DPRK gives the lie to his original, unexamined identification with the State. He is a man who becomes a fiction, but also a man who has formed and acted on his own view of the world. On his trip to America, he reveals that he has never seen a film and is offered a DVD of his choice; he requests “Casablanca,” because “They say that one is the greatest.” The finale, a tribute to Humphrey Bogart’s last stand on the airplane runway, retains the fantastical elements of an unruly reality turned to heavily structured, allegorical fiction. It is also a final vindication of storytelling, another iteration of beautiful selflessness– for as much harm as stories can do, they can also teach us about our own potential. Stories can demonstrate possibilities of living and thinking, understanding and compassion, that we would never otherwise have imagined. We need only listen, and question, and listen again.