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.