The Orphan Master’s Son. Adam Johnson.

Johnson, Adam. The Orphan Master’s Son. Random House paper New York. 2012. F; 1/14.

This complex masterpiece prompted a sentiment I hadn’t experienced since reading Wallace’s Infinite Jest: feeling happily out of my depth. It’s an apparently effortless exploration of reality and illusion, love and friendship, and moral ambiguity called forth in the course of telling a very convoluted story. It’s all set in the hideously credible North Korean dystopia, which the author keeps ironically at just sufficient arm’s length to maintain mood equilibrium. Really something.

A young fellow, Jun Do, ambiguously either really an orphan or the son of the keeper of a dreadful orphanage, escapes to become a kidnapper on a fishing boat, learns to fight in the dark being imprisoned in the tunnels under South Korea, ascends to political importance and travels to the US, but eventually is thrown into a dead-end charnel house prison. PLOT ALERT As he escapes from the prison he confronts and kills a war hero, probably second in importance in the country only to Kim Jung Il, moves to Pyongyang, assumes the dead hero’s identity, takes over his wife and family, and eventually gets them out of the country before being (presumably) executed for foiling the Great Leader’s plans END PLOT ALERT.

Accessory plot elements abound. Semi-historical political intrigue involves the Great Leader’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, based on the prison-mines which produce uranium.  A young American woman rowing around the world is captured and held as a bargaining chip. American officials connect with Jun Do while he is in Texas briefly and then through long-distance cellular connection.

There is a lovely comic irony, again reminiscent of Wallace, about the ridiculously ersatz out-of-date and falling-apart world of the uniquely dangerous and horrid little country. Mr. Johnson navigates all the ambiguity and plot and point-of-view switchbacks with that ironic voice while periodically reminding us that he’s a virtuoso descriptive prose artist.

One of the major themes of course is dystopia, and we get ironic shades of Orwell in the ubiquitous loudspeakers, pouring forth ridiculous lies about the ideal life of a citizen of North Korea.

Without direct reference, ambiguity is everywhere from the loudspeaker broadcasts which sometimes contain critical plot elements to dizzying reference to “the story”. The man we are told is what matters in America, the story in North Korea. In the dystopia you are, really are, the patently false story the government chooses to tell about you. A young interrogator develops biographies of prisoners under torture, and as he emerges as a morally thoughtful character he speculates about the changes of story his torture imposes on prisoners. “Wouldn’t the real change be if a person was to… get a whole new inner life?” PLOT ALERT The night before their escape, Jun Do tells another kind of story to his children in which he re-creates them imaginatively anticipating losing them forever END PLOT ALERT.

The great love story, anchored murkily in Jun Do’s recollection of his movie star/opera singer mother, involves the war hero’s wife Sun Moon in a triangle between her new husband and the Great Leader, with whom she has an affair, figuratively holding her nose but understanding the terrible importance of pleasing him. The Leader seduces her with promises of cheap thrills like jet skis, and his omnipotence is put in perspective PLOT ALERT when Jun Do fools him, and his loved ones escape to a world surely better, reflected in cellphone screens eventually in the hands of the interrogator END PLOT ALERT.

But the Leader for all his cheap nastiness is no joke. He is a nuclear-armed megalomaniac potentially bargaining eye-to-eye with the world outside North Korea represented by America. Not only his entire country but in his mind everyone else is terrified of him and reveres him. He has created and presides over his story, an enormous and complex falsehood that reflects with the grotesque joke of a distorting mirror the one we are reading.

Such an unlikely venue for a wonderfully-told tale formed of so many elements. Whatever North Korea is really like, its use as a literary device for me helps give this novel pretty wide aesthetic and dramatic scope. I’d say among contemporary fiction it’s in the rarefied company of Wallace, and also Book of Memories. 9.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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