Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson



It’s been a couple weeks since Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son  won the Morning News Tournament of Books, and about a week since it nabbed the Pulitzer Prize. So I know what you’re all wondering: “Well, MacEvoy, what do you  think of it?”

Sagely anticipating your question, I have undertaken the reading of it. Here are my thoughts.

First off, it is a really good book, and a very compelling read. For most readers, myself included, it’ll be the first peek you’ve ever gotten inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. And you will not be disappointed with the sweep of history, culture and color that Johnson supplies. Some of the vignettes, like a fishing vessel’s discovery of mysterious radio transmissions from the international space station or from a pair of female American rowers working their way across the Pacific, give you a fascinating window into what it must be like for North Koreans to encounter the real world outside their borders.

Now, I’ve never set foot in the DPRK. But while Johnson’s sensationalized portrayal of North Korea doesn’t strike me as completely  believable, I’m going to go ahead and assume he’s done far more research than I’ve ever done on the subject. So, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on the details.

Here’s what’s really wrong with the book: He’s taken his research into a half dozen unrelated facets of life under the Kim regime, and woven them into a single character’s experience. And for me it just doesn’t ring true.


Pak Jun Do is introduced as a tunnel soldier, trained for combat in the pitch darkness of passageways beneath the DMZ. But then he is recruited as a kidnapper, plucking people off the coast of Japan by boat. After that, he becomes an intelligence officer who monitors radio signals on a fishing boat in the Sea of Japan. He is beatified as a hero of the people, and is whisked off on some high-level diplomatic talks with an American Senator in Texas. Then he is thrown into a prison camp. Then he escapes and assumes the identity of a government minister. Etc., etc. It just got to be a little much to swallow.

If you’re asking me— and let’s be honest, nobody is—this book should have been written as a mosaic story, with multiple main characters whose intersecting plot lines are woven together at the end of the book (Think “Crash”, or the “Modern Family” pilot episode.) That would have fixed it for me. Told as it was, with a character who wears just about every possible hat, just so he could observe every possible North Korean atrocity, I half-expected him to be fine-tuning nuclear weapons or performing open-heart surgery on the Dear Leader just because some government goons roughed him up and told him, “Okay, you’re a scientist now” or “ Your next assignment is as a heart surgeon.” Heck, he’d been everything else by that point.

But the sentence-level writing is first class, beautiful stuff. And he brings references from early in the book full circle so that there are plenty of overarching themes for the reader to absorb. I would gladly pick up Johnson’s next book, and I’ll even gladly recommend this one, with the one caveat mentioned above. Check it out.




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