The Orphan Master’s Son.

When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.

I’ve read about half of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, including the last thirteen, and overall, my impression is that they pick some pretty dreary books. Many titles won for what I thought were fairly obvious reasons of political correctness, and others have won for reasons that escape me entirely. A few seem like lifetime achievement awards, like Faulkner winning for two of his lesser novels or Cheever getting an omnibus award for his short stories. Last year, they punted entirely, failing to name a winner for the first time since 1977, sparking some outrage from independent booksellers who see a spike in sales of the winner in years when the board deigns to name one.

The most recent winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, breaks that recent trend in many ways, all of them good. Unlike most winners, the novel isn’t set in the United States, and has nothing to do with the American experience. It’s set almost entirely in North Korea, yet explores themes, especially the natures of freedom and identity, that go well beyond the confines of the world’s most repressive regime. It’s rendered with deep empathy for nearly all of its characters, encapsulating a surprising amount of humor (some of it dark, of course) in a wide-ranging tragedy that harkens back to Shakespeare. Johnson even crafts government agents who are better than caricatures, and makes the horrendous conditions of life in North Korea real on the page without pandering. It’s a compulsive read in spite of, or perhaps in part due to, the difficulty of the subject matter.

The main character, introduced to us as Pak Jun Do, the son of the book’s title, begins life in a North Korean orphanage run by his father, after which he progresses through a series of jobs that bring him into increasing conflict with the regime that controls every aspect of North Korean life. His final role involves the assumption of the identity of a national hero, bringing him into the orbit of the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, leading to the ultimate conflict that drives the final half of the novel, where Pak Jun Do, now called Commander Ga, tries to save his new wife, whom the Dear Leader wants for himself.

Johnson spins an elaborate plot that remains quite easy to follow, even with his technique of telling the Commander Ga story through three different perspectives – a third-person view, the first-person narrative of one of Ga’s state interrogators, and brief dispatches from the state’s own mouthpiece. The first third, covering Pak Jun Do’s life from the orphanage to his time as a spy on a fishing vessel to a trip to Texas with a low-level diplomat, is all prologue to the story of the actress, Sun Moon. Yet even she is only a part of the larger story of Pak Jun Do’s own disillusionment and attempt to find what freedom he can in a totalitarian state, and to fashion an identity for himself after the state wiped out the first one and gave him another.

The development of Pak Jun Do, whose name sounds similar to the English “John Doe,” allows Johnson to explore those these of freedom and identity while folding in stories like that of the true-believer state interrogator who questions not just his allegiances, but the entire structure of his life to date – but does so subtly, almost as an objective outside observer of his own life, while he continues his job of chronicling prisoners’ lives before wiping out their memories with electroshock therapy. Johnson humanizes the inhuman, and gives texture to flat images that seem too awful to contemplate, weaving it all into the narrative as background, so that the characters’ stories can occur in front of a realistic setting that might otherwise have overwhelmed them.

Johnson did visit North Korea, but like the few Westerners allowed to enter that backwards nation, he wasn’t permitted to speak to any average citizens, which meant that he had to imagine their quotidian lives and their typical dialogue without the benefit of first-person research. I found his incorporation of the omnipresent state into nearly every conversation realistic, or at least reasonable, for a situation where a single errant sentence could get you sent to a prison camp (which, by the way, the North Koreans still deny they use) or worse. The refraction of normal conversation through the prism of the police state twists not only words, but the mores of everyday life:

“What happened?” Buc asked him.
“I told her the truth about something,” Ga answered.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Buc said. “It’s bad for people’s health.”

Even though Pak/Ga does some awful things during the course of the book, including participating in kidnappings of Japanese citizens (something the North Koreans have admitted doing), he earns the reader’s sympathy through the strange development of his character. The use of a “John Doe” soundalike name can’t be a coincidence; he is a blank canvas, growing up with memories but no independent identity, and shapeshifts into different roles, developing his moral compass and his emotions later in life, so that the person he is at the end of the novel bears no resemblance to the person he was at the start. It’s only a minor spoiler to say that the conclusion finds him at his most free, and with the clearest identity he’s had in the entire story. How he gets there, and how Johnson takes us along, is one of the strongest experiences I’ve had as a reader in years.

Next up: I’ve just finished Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami and am about to start Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career.


  1. ….it is obvious why you are not still with the Jays….

  2. Sounds good – I’ll have to check this out. I’m currently finishing up Philipp Meyer’s “The Son,” which you may enjoy. Clear echoes of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and some of McCarthy’s work, though in a more popular package.

    Keith, you going to be at the Futures Game? Wife got me tickets for our anniversary (good woman). I’d say I’ll buy you a beer, but pretty sure I’m sitting in the upper level.

  3. Hey Keith – missed the chat today but reading the transcript just now I’m compelled to thank you for this: “I have no idea why people don’t want to discuss this stuff, but I am not going to just refuse to discuss it because it might make someone else uncomfortable. This is part of who I am. Take it or leave it.”

    I’ve had some pretty terrible times with social anxiety and depression, but with a lot of hard work and more help than I can describe, those times are behind me now. I haven’t gone with meds, but have learned all sorts of ways to keep myself from flying off the rails. Among the most important are exercising and eating healthful foods. And also applying the sort of technique you describe: here I am in all my flawed glory and if I need/want to mention that I barely left my room from 2005 to 2008, so be it. Honesty must come first.

    Met the most alluring woman I’ve ever encountered up in Vermont last weekend and actually flirted with charm, style and confidence. Dash and brio, even. Going up to see her again Saturday. Wish me luck.

  4. Seasonal depression = whining. You people are extremely weak willed. Nobody cares that you are sad. No one. So stop sharing. You are only enabling a new generation of idiots to write off their self imposed problems as clinical depression.

  5. @Mike: Yes, I will be there. I’ll tweet where I’ll be between BP and the games.

    @Brian: Thanks for sharing that – glad to hear you’ve made some progress. Sounds like you have a more serious case than I do, although I believe the same things that are helping me will probably help you (including meds, if you’re willing).

    @Tex: You’re an idiot, both for your juvenile attitude, and for your ignorance of SAD’s presence in the DSM-5. The psychiatric community agrees that SAD is real. Why should anyone listen to you?

  6. Appeal to authority. You’re a soft little man. You should not be raising children.

  7. @Tex: No, just an appeal to science. Go visit Prof. Miles Bore, and I’m sure he’d be happy to set you straight. You are, however, now banned from this site.

  8. Tex – I’d never wish what I went through on anyone, but maybe you could use a week of depression to know that it’s real. Since you seem like the bullying type, I doubt you could take it.

  9. Keith – I did meds for a while, tried a few actually, hated them all, and have found much more success with a cognitive/behavioral approach, especially with an emphasis on mindfulness. Learning how to stop for half a second, step back, and check in on “what am I feeling, and why”* has been incredibly empowering. To the point that nowadays I don’t even have to do it so much and can just live in the moment and be like “ok, I’m going to remember what I’m feeling and check in later so I don’t miss anything that’s actually happening outside my head right now”.

    *Even better, is learning how to tell myself “I don’t have to feel badly about this, so I won’t”. *That* took a while to get good at, believe me.

    But everyone has to find his/her own best way. That’s the trickiest thing about it.

  10. I live in South NJ, work in the sports industry, have an ivy league Masters and also deal with anxiety. Anytime you ever want to connect, be it at a Thunder game or in Wilmington, happy to do so. (ESPN’s ad sales division is a client of mine.)

  11. This is an old post, but I just wanted to comment that I picked up this book on your recommendation and I really enjoyed it. I’ve read several books about North Korea over the past few years. It’s such as a morbidly fascinating country. Considering how fast and free information travels today, I think it’s the last country of its kind, which is why it’s so fascinating.

    When people would ask what I was currently reading and I told them that I was reading a book about an orphan in North Korea, they automatically assumed that it must be very depressing. However, this book wasn’t depressing to read at all, and quite funny at times. I would compare it to a Tom Robbins novel: serious topics weaved into crazy surreal adventures. If you’re interested in nonfictional stories about life in North Korea, I would highly recommend Barbara Demick’s book “Nothing to Envy”.

    Thanks for taking the time to write this review. I probably would’ve missed out on this great book if you hadn’t had mentioned it.

  12. Keith,
    Based on your review I just finished reading The Orphan Master’s Son. Very good book. Thank you for the suggestion. It’s hard to believe that some of the things described in the book go on in North Korea until you hear about Kim Jong-un having his ex-girlfriend and a few others shot by a firing squad and their families sent to a prison camp.