Unlike his universally beloved The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s new work, Fortune Smiles, is an uneven output. Its six short pieces range from brilliant tales of pain and struggle, to more rote pieces focusing on adrift Koreans and former Stasi guards refusing to acknowledge their crimes, to downright bizarre metafiction about marriage, writing, and disease. Despite their varying degrees of success, each is cogently written and seems to be of a piece with the collection as a whole. Throughout, Johnson tries to show the deep bedrock of feeling below the exteriors of his protagonists.
One of the hallmarks of a Johnson work is the attention to detail, which he uses in subtle ways that don’t distract or diverge from the narrative. Even when it’s clear research has been done, the way he works it into the story always seems natural. This keeps the prose from becoming hollow or stuffy, and the diction from being too high or uneven. Even in “George Orwell was a Friend of Mine,” the most contrived story, Johnson’s former Stasi prison warden comes roaring to life in both his reflections on past experiences and his denial of how brutal his prison really was. When he eventually comes to know the suffering of his inmates while on a tour of his old workplace, the story’s lack of power or surprise takes a backseat to how pleasurable it is to read Johnson’s work.
Almost as a rule, the protagonists are trying to do the right thing. Each character has a sympathetic sadness, even if they’re revolting, like the would-be child predator in “Dark Meadow” who fights against his own predilections, and, thankfully, seems to succeed. In “Nirvana,” the best story in the collection, Johnson manages to weave an intimate story from two disparate strands—the struggle for the narrator to keep faith alive in the heart of his Guillain-Barre syndrome-stricken wife, and his creation of a digital simulation of the country’s recently assassinated president. Johnson lets the larger questions of the absurd simulation disappear into the background, focusing instead on how he finds solace in the pre-programmed creation’s advice, and gains the strength to carry on when in doubt. It’s a tricky feat, but Johnson wrings real pathos and pain from a married couple facing a challenge that seems beyond their control.
While “Dark Meadow” may seem like the boldest story, it doesn’t compare to “Interesting Facts,” which serves as a strange bit of metafiction involving a blending of author and creation. Born from the desire to understand his wife’s struggle with breast cancer and written against her wishes, the story moves from a sense of reality to seemingly metaphysical hallucinations that turn it into a bizarre and effective puzzle. In a clever move, the character of Adam Johnson is accused by his wife of stealing her stories, particularly one titled “Dark Meadow.” This winking doesn’t pander, and Johnson should be commended for the way he takes aim at himself while remaining fearless in the exploration of the interior world of his “wife.” Never one to write easy fiction, Johnson aims for the throat, and tackles the cliché-yet-real power that fame has on a novelist. In addition to mentioning small acts of literary theft, he confronts how to deal with ego and lust, writing:
Before my husband won a Pulitzer, we had a kind of deal. I would adore him, even though he packed on a few pounds. And he would adore me, even though I had a double mastectomy. Who else would want us? Who else, indeed. Now his readings are packed with young Dorothy Parkers who crowd around my man.
In being vulnerable and clear eyed, Johnson is able to examine everything from the fear of infidelity to the ways in which time is lost to us after a struggle with disease.
Johnson won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for The Orphan Master’s Son, a story of darkness and hope set in North Korea. Returning to this familiar subject matter to close out his collection, he crafts a story that concerns two defectors, one looking to have a fresh start in South Korea, the other stuck and broken up over unsettled affairs back home. Johnson, a master of the slow-boil reveal, allows his characters to naturally progress to a place where their hard-won decisions seem like necessity, not mere choice. When he writes, “He kept looking at the place in the sky where Sun-ho had been. There was no way Sun-ho could get what he really wanted; there was no way he could sail a thousand years back in time. Maybe the closest a person could get was North Korea,” Johnson drives home the theme of his oeuvre: you can’t have your dreams, but you can find some hard-won respite.