M. Francis Wolff reviews Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, in The New Inquiry:
Adam Johnson’s latest novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, is one of those rare works of high ambition that follow through on all of its promises. Set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it examines both the Orwellian horrors of life in the DPRK and the voyeurism of Western media. North Korea is a two-way mirror, a country in lockdown; we can see in, but they can’t see out. North Koreans’ isolation and reliance on shameless state propaganda for any understanding of the outside world, or even of their own country, create a culture of such outlandish misinformation that the Western media and its audience often respond with laughter. Incredulous, horrified, uncontrollable laughter, more indicative of disturbance and fear than amusement. As outsiders, spectators, we have no way to connect: There is either the black humor of a country where Kim Il-Sung created the world and Kim Jong-il controls the weather, or the tragedy of unrelenting state-perpetrated murders, where almost 1 percent of the population are sent to die in concentration camps. We see a case study in mass manipulation, or a crowd of faceless victims. Neither is conducive to true understanding.
All the more credit to Adam Johnson, then, for even attempting to set a novel in the DPRK. The Orphan Master’s Son is Johnson’s third work — he has published a book of short stories, Emporium, and a novel, Parasites Like Us — and he appears to be in his natural element of black dystopian humor. Johnson’s great strength lies in the bait-and-switch: He lures his readers in with comedy and then overwhelms us with the tragedy that underscores every joke. He makes unexamined caricatures human again. His novel is essential reading for its cynical, media-swamped audience; it is one of those rare vindications of fiction’s potential, its power to humanize the Other and light the way of empathy and understanding.
It is important to note that this is not A Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich; Johnson does not confine himself to grim realism, but instead races through North Korea at a breakneck speed, like a crazed tourist guide who won’t let you out of the car. His North Korean everyman, Jun Do (consideration of the similarities to the appellation “John Doe” is encouraged but not required) is propelled through a dizzying array of settings and identities, from North Korea to Texas, from an orphan to a state-manufactured national treasure. Our hero’s childhood is dispensed of in 10 pages. His entry into the army and training as a tunnel fighter occupies one paragraph, after which point he emerges, blinking in the light of day, to fulfill his duties as our unwitting guide to North Korea. Nor does The Orphan Master’s Son attempt to describe a representative sample of North Korean daily life; there is something else going on here.