In The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson has not only visited a nation curtained from the rest of the world, but has recreated it with compassion and humanity. The result is a relentless examination of what it means to be human in an inhumane world.
Tiger steaks, opera singers, taekwondo, hope: these are just a few elements Adam Johnson uses to create the atmosphere of his impressive second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. Often compared to fiction luminaries Kurt Vonnegut and T.C. Boyle, Johnson follows his previous hit work with yet another world completely steeped in humanity and love, even though he presents a modern North Korea of cruel hardships and an even crueler government. As in his story collection Emporium and first novel Parasites Like Us, mapmaking is what Johnson does best, transporting readers to fully realized locations never encountered before and that are rarely depicted in other contemporary fiction. Johnson dedicates himself to the small but true realities of everyday, and the North Korea of this novel is rendered painfully so, where people’s lives are constantly shifted by arbitrary rules and their true thoughts are never uttered for fear of being denounced by anyone from coworker to family member.
Through years of research and a trip to the enigmatic nation, Johnson presents North Korean commonplaces few readers have actually experienced in any walk of life. This is a nation that controls it populace through labor-induced “criticism sessions” and soldiers who sweep the streets for harvest “volunteers”; a nation that ships starving families to mining camps for stealing acorns from city parks and manufactures miniature shovels so children can work as much as the adults. Johnson’s novel depicts a paralyzed Korea cowed by loudspeakers placed in every structure piping propaganda, and an omnipotent regime headed by a Puckish man who controls everything, great and small. This is a nation that desperately needs someone to speak to the world on the citizens’ behalf, and Johnson delivers just that with his titular character.
The novel’s protagonist is presumed orphan Pak Jun Do, a North Korean everyman whose survival skills are only surpassed by his desire for a true freedom few people understand and fewer actually realize. Beginning his life as the Orphan Master’s son, Jun Do moves through this terrified society by being the best of what officially doesn’t exist, questioning the regime by undermining their secret activities and working for something more than just being another patriotic martyr. He is a midnight kidnapper who lets his victims live in his memory, a radioman stashed in the hull of a fishing boat where he tries to connect with the ephemeral voices he hears, an invisible hero sent to prison who lives long enough to be its only known escapee, and an impersonator of the nation’s second most recognized man where he can now act on his plans of finding real love, a love that makes one fall forever.
All of these events lead him to Sun Moon, the nation’s top actress, “so pure she didn’t know what starving people looked like”, and the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il. The novel culminates in a thrilling display of courage as Jun Do challenges Kim Jong Il by ruining the Dear Leader’s plans to stick it to a visiting American delegation during a prisoner exchange. Through his actions, Jun Do provides Sun Moon the opportunity to live a new life and shows North Korea that their government is not untouchable, finally allowing himself and others to reach a place where love and compassion are a possibility.
Johnson has provided a relentless examination of what it means to be human in an inhumane world, not only exposing the life of Jun Do but of all his characters, populating the novel with real human beings. Occasionally these character’s motivations and personalities reach a point of absurdity and become nearly unbelievable—especially Kim Jong Il, who is characterized as a show-stealing prankster and intrudes on the more interesting and explored ordinary lives. However Johnson has no need to apologize, giving his characters the sort of space not allowed in the North Korea of arbitrary rules and life as commodity. These characters want to live, and through Johnson, we want them to as well.
Despite Johnson’s attention to the details of this harsh Korean government and his comic representation of their recently deceased leader, this is not propaganda. This is a novel of immense compassion and hope, written with such empathy that no reader can visit its pages without asking themselves what their lives are really worth and what they’ll pay to live them. This is a story of connection, not separation. An American writer standing at the forefront of fiction, Adam Johnson is in love with the world, and you will love Pak Jun Do, The Orphan Master’s Son.