Monday, April 29, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

Two weeks ago, we learned who won the 2013 Pulitzers, and unlike last year, this year the fiction category actually had a winner: Adam Johnson for The Orphan Master's Son. 

Having turned in my dissertation to committee a few weeks ago, I giddily ordered this book to devour as a non-assigned pleasure. I finished reading it today.

Having read stacks and stacks of classics in preparation for my doctoral examinations, I had noticed my writing improved in terms of literary layering. But it suffered in that I tended to mimic the longer sentences and older writing styles of the earlier works. (I doubt any publisher today would buy War and Peace.) So now I want to read some of the best writing of more recent days to catch me up on later writing styles. I figured a Pulitzer winner might be a good place to start.

Set in North Korea, The Orphan Master's Son is a rather dystopian romance. Its protagonist, Pak Jun Do, the son of a man who runs a work camp for orphans and a mother who was "stolen" to Pyongyang, rises through the ranks from professional kidnapper, to prisoner, to one who exists within the inner circle of Kim Jong Il. In the process, Jun Do learns to deal shrewdly with his superiors to survive. As the book jacket says, the story provides a "portrait of a world rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty, but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love." Add to that explorations of identity, torture, propaganda, and ruthless state power. Of special interest to me as a fiction writer, the story explores how the state co-opts "narrative" to serve its own ends.

To be honest, I almost stopped reading halfway through, but I'm glad I pressed on. The author breaks a number of rules, which tripped me up a bit. And he does so on purpose. First, he switches from third-person to first-person, something I'd previously seen done well only in Don Richardson's Peace Child. And Johnson also messes with chronology. I expected a clear beginning, middle, and end, and he purposely wrote in a more disjointed way, because apparently "fragmentation is the hallmark of trauma narratives" (something he explains in a Q/A section that follows the end of the book). As the author writes, "North Korea is a trauma narrative on a national scale."

This novel didn't leave me feeling good. But I definitely learned a lot about North Korea—a subject about which I previously knew almost nothing. And I received a sobering reminder to value my freedoms.

The author is a master crafter of words and ideas, as well as a superb storyteller, and eventually his plot did pull me in to where I didn't want to put down the story. But that happened rather late in the process.

 Having also watched the movie "The Words" this weekend, I received from The Orphan Master's Son and "The Words" a sandwiched reminder that the worlds of reality and fiction may come so close as to touch, but we must never, ever confuse the two.

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