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The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2012)

Orphan-Masters-Son-with-Pulitzer-BurstA thoroughly enjoyable, tautly written, cleverly plotted novel, and one perhaps more subtle than it seems. Because Johnson’s research on life in North Korea is pretty clearly in place, we buy into the idea that we’re reading realism here. But how do you write realism about a place where reality is perpetually subject to change at the whim of the state? As events in the novel get stranger and stranger, you start doubting the realism that you took for granted at first — Is it really possible that Kim Jong Il commissioned a hand-built ersatz Ford Mustang just to humiliate a visiting U. S. Senator? Are there really villages in the DPRK populated entirely by “zombie laborers” who have been given lobotomies by the state? — and thus Johnson is able, in a small way, to create in his reader’s mind a state of surreality analogous to the one which must pervade life in North Korea, where survival requires you to believe in obvious untruths, and the truth itself is unbelievable.

So that’s a nifty formal success, yes, but there’s something discomfiting about the enterprise too. We see kidnappings, torture, coercion, murder, starvation, and much else to denote the plight of North Korea’s citizenry, but the novel, weirdly, also feels like a bit of a romp, with loads of exciting set pieces, comic passages, a star-crossed love story, and in the closing moments a Scooby-Doo-esque foiling of Kim Jong Il that left me tickled as a novel-reader but strangely horrified as a human-being. Digging down to get at the exact nature of my complaint here, I strike a layer of iron, or irony — I think I may be wondering whether there are simply some subjects about which novels should not be written.

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