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Another fine mess

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The Orphan Master's Son - Adam Johnson This book is going to get a tidal wave of hype. And I need you to believe it. It is really, really that good. I'm a hundred pages shy of completion and sitting in a lobby in Hong Kong without time or steady internet, but I have been wanting to start shouting and sharing about this since I began, so for the moment, just this drive-by rave will have to suffice.

[Added later -- 1/4/12]
I've fiddled with drafts of a review, or the idea of drafting a review, about a hundred times since I finished this up almost two months ago. There've been about 3, 4 times when I sat down to find some passages to quote--some perfect case study to illustrate Johnson's achievements here--and I end up rereading 20 pages, or a long chapter, instead of writing a damn thing.

North Korea is a big dark void on the map -- we know things are horrific, but the immensity and nature of the horror is somewhat hidden behind a wall of ridiculous, cartoon-sized Propaganda. What we've seen is only what Kim Jong Il saw, or imagined. It's enormously tempting to fully engage the silliness, to do a Chaplin and dethrone authority with a calculated deconstruction of the asinine hubris of that authoritarian. And as he first imagined this story, Johnson notes, he was focused on the sublime absurdity inherent in a North Korean short story contest under these conditions.

Yet one horrific side-effect of the authoritarian state is not just the consequent silliness--every story tap-dancing Kim onto center-stage--but the corollary brutality of erasure: no other Self acts in any narrative; the peninsula's one bright light shines, and the rest is darkness. One portion of Johnson's novel (intertwined through various chapters) is narrated in first-person plural by the speakers on every street, in every building, in every home, constantly superseding the local and the private with the aggrandizing nonsense of the Public narrative with that one Protagonist. Part of the point of the novel, Johnson makes explicit in an afterword, is to try and imagine the still-vibrant and vital narratives of self when every narrative is about, by, and for the Dear Leader.

Johnson tackles the problem in the story of Jun Do, told in two sections, situating this initially-blank protagonist in two grand narrative traditions: the picaresque and the romance. Jun Do is not an orphan himself but has been raised in an orphanage, and like the other lost souls in that home his name has been plucked from the roll of historical martyrs (the author slyly, aurally evoking a blank slate for the English-speaking readers, too), his every act and aspect of self tied to the needs of the state (the orphans valuable as cheap, disposable labor). And then he goes out into the world, and has adventures--as a kidnapper, a spy on a fishing trawler, a recruit for a top-secret mission in Texas. Section Two returns to home from the Road, envisions a star-crossed Romance that alludes to spy thrillers and heartbreaking tragedy and Korean opera.

Just attending to the storytelling acrobatics here makes your head swim -- because, damn, Johnson pulls off every new "and then" with deceptive ease. You're pulled along in a story full of twists, turns, heartbreak but also uproarious good fun. It's as entertaining and compelling a page-turner as I've read in some time.

But this glorious narrative play never loses sight of, even as it resists being subsumed into, the One Story demanded by power in the country. Johnson's done his homework--notes in the afterword his own trip to North Korea--and the book fills in the black void, illuminates the trials of the mandatory turning off of lights every night, the backbreaking penury and destructive hunger of daily life, the fierce paranoia which infects every human interaction.

So it is an impossible beast: as grand and exhilarating as it is horrifying and heart-rending. As keenly attuned to metafictional play as to conventional plotplotplot pleasures, scornfully derisive of the the Dear Leader's ridiculousness while keeping focused on the terror attendant with a Cartoon Dictator.

And I cared so deeply for and with Jun Do that I found myself in knots hoping for a happy ending. And for the people he runs into: the kidnapped, the translator, the trawler Captain, the fellow prisoner, the torturer, the Starlet. It is a world rich with story and heroism of every stripe.

I fucking loved this book. To return to a point I made in my initial drive-by, when you read or hear the huzzahs and hyperbole about it, don't dismiss it as propaganda.