Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son tells the story of Jun Do, a North Korean whose life follows a a path so improbable it almost becomes believable again...but not quite. We meet Jun Do in an orphanage where his father, as the book's title suggests, is an orphan master and treats his son only slightly better than the orphans under his charge. After his fellow orphans starve or freeze to death, Jun Do moves from one bizarre job to the next for the Dear Leader. He kidnaps a Japanese opera singer, trains as a soldier who fights exclusively in the pitch black warren of tunnels beneath North Korea, and after being sent to language camp to learn English, is given a "listening post" on the East Sea where he spends his nights transcribing radio broadcasts aboard a fishing boat. In one of my favorite scenes, a member of the crew figures out that a transmission Jun Do had thought was coming from a submarine plotting against North Korea is actually coming from the International Space Station:
They watched the Second Mate track the point of light to the horizon, and when the light went around the curve of the earth, the broadcast vanished. The crew kept staring at the Second Mate, and the Second Mate kept staring at the sky. Finally, he looked down at them. "They're in space together," he said "They're supposed to be our enemies, but they're up there laughing and screwing around." He lowered the directional and looked at Jun Do. "You were wrong," he said. "You were wrong--they are doing it for peace and fucking brotherhood."
After the fishing boat, Jun Do's life takes a turn into the extremely bizarre. After being caught in a lie, Jun Do is sent to a series of prison camps, each more horrifying than the last. At his final posting, he is tasked with carrying radioactive rocks out from the depths of a mine. When a government official (and close friend of the Dear Leader) confronts him in one of the tunnels, Jun Do kills him and assumes his identity. Then the book spirals into insanity.
Johnson starts each section with loudspeaker "announcements," many of which tell a version of Jun Do's story that has been sanitized for public consumption. It also weaves in the perspective of one the detectives investigating Jun Do after he has been found out. Especially at the end of the book, these sections become more and more tongue in cheek and the transition between propaganda and realty becomes more and more fluid and fuzzy. After the murder in the tunnels, the line between the reality that Jun Do is living and the reality that The Party is willing to accept gets more and more blurred, and it becomes impossible to tell who knows what. This builds suspense (at any moment, you expect the Dear Leader to turn on the man impersonating his best friend), but also requires a fairly large suspension of disbelief. It also creates a tension between story telling and reality that is a central theme of the book and the backdrop for some of the more haunting vignettes. Jun Do and his interviewer--who becomes somewhat of a second narrator--seem to spend most of their energy trying to resolve this tension and separate out the strands of what is real and what is not. As they struggle to sort their understanding of the world into real and not real, the blurriness of the line between the two becomes more obvious, and it becomes harder for the reader to differentiate between the two.
In interviews about his writing process, Johnson revealed that it was relatively easy to find primary sources describing the horrific lives of the average citizen in North Korea, but harder to learn about the inner workings of the Party and its elite supporters. Defectors tend to have experienced the prison camps and the day to day oppression that is commonplace in the majority of North Korea; the lives of the elite in Pyongyang, however, are harder to investigate. Visitors are able to see a very curated version of life in Pyongyang, but there is little access into what life is actually like. Similarly, members of the various policing organizations rarely defect, so information about what goes on in their ranks is hard to come by. This comes through somewhat in Johnson's writing. Passages describing the prison camps were jarring and awful, but felt more grounded than those describing the mechanics of the Party or the Secret Police.
I'm fascinated with North Korea, so I enjoyed this book as a window into life (even imagined life) within its walls. The bizarre co-existence of the constant propaganda and deep oppression comes across as appropriately awful, and Johnson chooses details that illustrate this tension well. The sections describing Jun Do's life at sea were especially beautiful and poignant, although I think I'm especially fond of stories where people sit on boats and ruminate on life. That being said, I struggled a lot with the end of the book. It's violent and dark (possibly excessively so), but it's also hard to figure out what's motivating each of the characters, especially Jun Do. Johnson's writing keeps you interested and hooked, and he balances beautiful details with tension building and action, but I wanted to know more about what was going on inside the characters' heads. The women in the book are especially one dimensional, despite having interesting and well thought-out back stories.
Overall, if you're a North Korea addict, this is well worth the read. If magical realism/suspension of disbelief is your thing: also worth it. If not, the story doesn't quite work well enough to hold together.