Adam Johnson – The Ophan Master’s Son (Book Review)

The Orphan Master's Son cover

Adam Johnson – The Orphan Master’s Son

Usually, I have a pretty good idea what I think of a book after reading it. With The Orphan Master’s Son, I’m a lot less sure. Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is at times funny, horrifying, insightful, and boring.

Set in North Korea, it’s basically a real-life dystopia. Full of double-speak, blatant propaganda, and misconceptions from people who know no other life, it has a very good bleak humor to it. It is also full of horrors, and doesn’t shy away from emphasizing how cheaply the lives of children, families, and animals are tossed away. North Korea is largely unknown to us, so it’s difficult to decide how realistic this is. However, the setting still gives it a feeling of reality. Instead of enjoying this as a clever book in the abstract dystopian tradition, the horrors feel real. But after a few chapters, just when you’re wondering if you can take a whole book like that, it settles down into a more standard plot about an aimless young man with no identity. Rather than being about some place on the other side of the world, it feels like yet another naval-gazing American story about finding yourself. The main character goes through a series of increasingly unlikely adventures, and despite what I thought at the beginning, it got harder to read as it got further from the cruelties of common life.

A little before the halfway point, it suddenly changes. It jumps forward in time, after some major events have happened, and then unravels that story using flashbacks and new characters’ reactions. This gives the second half the purpose that had been lacking at first, with all the early disjointed plots and themes tying together nicely. It also feels less wild, though, as the reader now knows more or less where the flashbacks are headed. In general, this does save the book – the mix of memorable atrocities and arbitrary plot shifts just couldn’t have been maintained for very long.

Also, the book is saved by the themes it develops. Johnson chooses to make his study of North Korea to be about identity and story. In his vision of this land, the truth is whatever the leaders tell you it is, and no part of your identity is safe from the rulings they can impose. It’s no coincidence that the protagonist is named Jun Do (“John Doe”), and he goes through many very different positions in his life. At first, like a dystopian David Copperfield, he does nothing but accept every new identity he’s given. Eventually, though, he learns to take control of a system in which words redefine reality, and eventually extends that power to the extreme. This builds up gradually so that the result feels like a triumph over the system that defines North Korea, as long as you let yourself forget that the author’s conceit may bear little resemblance to the actual nation.

At times too ridiculous to take seriously, and other times so tragic you wish you couldn’t take it seriously, The Orphan Master’s Son is as full of contradictions as the land it portrays. Some scenes will stick with me for a long time. I have to conclude that it was worth reading, though I sometimes had to struggle to get to the parts that made it worthwhile.

Grade: B-

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