The Kim Jong Il that we meet in Adam Johnson’s second novel, set in North Korea, is no cartoon villain, no Team America marionette. He’s a three-dimensional character—a hairsprayed, jumpsuited, hopping-mad monomaniac, sure, but a man in whom we can recognize some of our own jealousies and desires. And although he is offstage more often than not in The Orphan Master’s Son, Dear Leader, as he’s usually referred to, is omnipresent in every conversation, every moment of intimacy, every sorrow that takes place somewhere in this fictional DPRK. He’s the glue holding together not just an entire totalitarian nation, but this ambitious, flawed, brave novel.
Johnson’s true protagonist, however, is Pak Jun Do, an obscure peasant who will grow up to be Kim Jong Il’s greatest rival. When the novel begins, during the North Korean famine of the 1990s, Jun Do refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he is an orphan. He prefers to see himself as the unwanted offspring of his cruel taskmaster and a beautiful wife stolen by Pyongyang authorities. “Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy’s shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.” Although Jun Do’s denials are transparent (“Going to that orphange really messed with your head,” a comrade tells him), they establish one of the novel’s themes—that the stories we invent for ourselves are more important than any account of what really happened.
Not that Jun Do’s life isn’t eventful. Johnson is a lunatic storyteller, and a rapid-fire series of picaresque adventures drives the first half of the book, with Jun Do confronting foes (sharks, Americans) along the high seas. There is also a hilariously unsuccessful diplomatic visit to Texas, where our hero inadvertently outshines his bumbling superiors. The second half of the book flashes forward to the present, as an imprisoned Jun Do, who has been arrested for murder, awaits execution. At this point, Johnson shifts from the use of third person to a judicious mix of first and third, giving us the additional perspective of the interrogator who must extract Jun Do’s confession. Through this anonymous civil servant, Johnson conveys the paranoid, self-doubting mind-set of an individual living in a society in which there are not supposed to be any individuals: “Again, my apologies for using that regrettable pronoun ‘I.’ I try not to bring it to work with me.”
The plot of The Orphan Master’s Son is often overwrought, but then how can a novel about life under a dictator—who, as it happens, is an opera enthusiast and wears platform heels—be otherwise? Johnson’s seriocomic method of piling farces upon tragedies upon atrocities doesn’t distance us from the violence so much as make it bearable: His scenes of torture display an unflinching, bone-crunching directness. And yet some of the most affecting scenes are the quieter ones, scenes of domesticity. Nothing in the book is more poignant than the interrogator’s love for, and fear of, his blind, frail parents, whom he suspects of spying on him. Emporium (2002), Johnson’s debut story collection, was deservedly praised for its pyrotechnics and zany science-fiction conceits, earning the author comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and T. C. Boyle. But the strongest passages in that book were, similarly, those that concerned families. Recalling the early stories of Scott Bradfield or the John Cheever who wrote “The Swimmer,” Johnson, at his best, has a flair for limning the surreal undercurrents flowing beneath the normalcy of exurban American life.
If those stories found Johnson extracting the unfamiliar from the quotidian, then The Orphan Master’s Son finds him doing just the opposite. The results aren’t always as satisfying, but they show Johnson evolving into a more daring writer. Peering into one of the world’s most closed societies, the author has located the similarities between us and them, offering the possibility that we in the United States might be able to relate to the cognitive dissonance North Koreans experience on a daily basis. The idea that we can clearly recognize the people behind that iron curtain—that we can identify with their psychological disconnects—ought to console us, just as it ought to trouble us.