Criticism & Features

Year 2012: 30 Books

Michael Miller on Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son”

By Michael Miller

In the weeks leading up to the February 28 announcement of the 2012 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights the thirty finalists. Today in our series, NBCC board member Michael Miller offers an appreciation of fiction finalist The Orphan Master's Son (Random House) by Adam Johnson.

With his second novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson challenges the old bit of authorial wisdom “Write what you know” to devastating effect. This is most obvious in his choice of setting, North Korea, a totalitarian state so hermetic and repressive that it forbids its citizens or their stories to reach the world beyond its borders. Johnson has grappled with this lack of information in part by doing copious research, and his book offers a crisp portrait of the DPRK, particularly its extensive network of gulags, ubiquitous propaganda, forced military service, and most notorious leader, the recently deceased Kim Jong Il. But research alone could not produce Johnson’s most affecting achievement, which is how masterfully he portrays characters living in a world where knowledge itself has become radically unstable if not entirely off-limits. North Korea is a “land where people have been trained to accept any reality presented to them,” where gulags that practice baroque forms of torture are benignly called “redeemability” or “reeducation” camps, and where a father might nervously say to his son, “Do not question our loyalties…. Is this a test?” In a nation that requires citizens to “distill the human heart and pour it into the vessel of patriotic zeal,” knowing anything about anyone—even oneself—becomes a complicated and often life-threatening process.

Johnson thrives in this context of factual distortion, offering a cast of characters who become all the more complex as they shakily seek (or in many cases avoid) the truth. The novel charts the rise and fall of one Pak Jun Do (read: John Doe), who we meet at a grim orphanage bearing the benevolent-sounding title Long Tomorrows. Jun Do’s own story is mired in misinformation: He believes that the man who runs the orphanage is his father, though it quickly becomes clear that this is false. In any case, Jun Do is subject to forces that render family obsolete. During the floods and famine of the mid-1990s, he is taken in by the army, which sends the young man to patrol pitch-dark caves under enemy territory, and then to complete kidnapping missions in Japan. Later, while Jun Do is on a mission at sea, a crew member defects, putting everyone on the boat in jeopardy (Kim Jong Il notoriously tortured anyone even loosely connected to a defector). Jun Do, already well-trained in the art of self-mythologizing, helps concoct a story claiming that the defector was pushed into the ocean and devoured by sharks; according to the story, he jumped into the water attempting to save the man, and to “prove” this he allows a shark to bite his arm to the bone. This is material worthy of a satire, but in The Orphan Master’s Son, embracing the absurd is a serious matter, often one of life or death.

The growing distance between concocted narratives and personal truths is Johnson’s most powerful theme, which he deftly fuses to a nightmarish and thriller-like plot line. June Do continues to adapt to the cruel dictates of the state: His whopper of a shark tale elevates him to the status of national hero, but soon a misstep lands him in a camp replete with gruesome acts of torture. There, he defeats, and possibly kills, the sadistic Commander Ga, who has fallen out of favor with Kim Jong Il. Jun Do is allowed to assume the identity of Ga, moving to Pyongyang, taking his name, and even living (and eventually falling in love) with his wife, the actress Sun Moon. Together, they hatch a plan for self-reinvention that, if discovered, will mean brutal death for them both.

About halfway through the book, Johnson begins to toggle between multiple perspectives. We hear from young man in charge of writing the “biographies” of tortured captives who have been deemed enemies of the state (significantly, these biographies, upon completion, are sent to a “library” where “no visitors are allowed”). There are also two competing portrayals of Jun Do (now Commander Ga) and Sun Moon as they near the date of their grand plan. The more significant and genuinely moving account of their growing affection for one another is suspenseful, intimate, and realistic. The second version, propaganda broadcast by the government over the mandatory loudspeakers that have been installed in homes and factories, coats the events in a shellac of falsehood so thick that hardly a glimmer of reality shines through. One of the many tragedies of The Orphan Master’s Son is that Kim Jong Il repurposes Jun Do and Sun Moon’s story to suit the grandiose and apocryphal narrative of the DPRK. But Johnson’s complex triumph is the presentation of his characters’ actual experience—a pocket of hard-won truth in a world where lying is a requirement for survival.


Adam Johnson's homepage at Stanford University.

New York Times review.

Washington Post review.