Orphan Master's Son (Johnson)

The Orphan Master's Son
Adam Johnson, 2012
Random House
480 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812982626

Winner, 2013 Pulitizer Prize

An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Born—July 12, 1967
Where—South Dakota, USA
Where—Arizona, USA
Education—B.A., Arizona State University; M.F.A.,
   McNeese State University; Ph.D., Florida State
Awards—see below
Currently—lives in San Francisco, California

Adam Johnson, an American novelist and short story writer, was born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona. He earned a BA in Journalism from Arizona State University in 1992; a MFA from the writing program at McNeese State University, where he was a classmate of the writer Neil Connelly, in 1996; and a PhD in English from Florida State University in 2000.

Johnson is currently a San Francisco writer and associate professor in creative writing at Stanford University. He founded the Stanford Graphic Novel Project and was named "one of the nation's most influential and imaginative college professors" by Playboy Magazine.

His  2012 novel, The Orphan Master's Son, was called by New York Times reviewer,Michiko Kakutani, "a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice."  Johnson's interest in the topic arose from his sensitivity to the language of propaganda, wherever it occurs.

He also wrote the short-story collection Emporium and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award in 2003. His work has been published in Esquire, Harper's Magazine, Tin House and The Paris Review, as well as Best New American Voices and The Best American Short Stories. His work focuses on characters at the edge of society for whom isolation and disconnection are nearly permanent conditions. Michiko Kakutani, described the central theme "running through his tales is also a melancholy melody of longing and loss: a Salingeresqe sense of adolescent alienation and confusion, combined with an acute awareness of the randomness of life and the difficulty of making and sustaining connections."

According to Daniel Mendelsohn, writing for New York Magazine, “Johnson's oh-so-slightly futuristic flights of fancy, his vaguely Blade Runner–esque visions of a cluttered, anaerobic American culture, illustrate something very real, very current: the way we must embrace the unknown, take risks, in order to give flavor and meaning to life.” A strain of absurdity also runs through is work, causing it to be described as "a funky new science fiction that was part irony and part pure dread." "Teen Sniper" is about young sniper prodigy enlisted by the Palo Alto police department to suppress the disgruntled workers of Silicon Valley. "The Canadanaut" follows a remote team of Canadian weapons developers who race to beat the Americans to the Moon.

Johnson has received a Whiting Writers' Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Swarthout Writing Award, a Kingsbury Fellowship and a Stegner Fellowship. He was named Debut Writer of the Year in 2002 by Amazon.com, and in 2003 he was selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers series. He was nominated for a Young Lions Award from the New York Public Library and received scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers' conferences. In 2010, he won the Gina Berriault Literary Award. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Mr. Johnson does an agile job of combining fablelike elements with vivid emotional details to create a story that has both the boldness of a cartoon and the nuance of a deeply felt portrait. He captures the grotesque horrors that Jun Do is involved in, or witness to, even as he gives us a visceral sense of the world that his characters inhabit…In making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That's the genius of The Orphan Master's Son. Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mache creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable…Johnson's book is an audacious act of imagination: an intimate narrative about one of the most closed nations on Earth…Yet the setting is precisely rendered…I haven't liked a new novel this much in years.
David Igantius - Washington Post

Adam Johnson's remarkable novel "The Orphan Master’s Son" is set in North Korea, an entire nation that has conformed to the fictions spun by a dictator and his inner circle…Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity…We don't know what's really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.
Wall Street Journal

Startling…Johnson's carefully layered story feels authentic...[He] writes light-footed prose, barely allowing harrowing glimpses of atrocity to register before accelerating onward. He resists the temptation to turn his subject matter into comic fodder, but never ignores the absurdity, provoking laughter with jagged edges that tends to die in your throat.

The death of Kim Jong Il couldn't have come at a better time for novelist Adam Johnson. "The Orphan Master’s Son" is a richly textured political thriller about the hidden world of North Korea with all of its misery, violence and defiant acts of love under impossible circumstances. Stunning and evocative imagery abounds on every page.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

(Starred review.) Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: ‘...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.’ In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended.
Library Journal

(Starred review.) [A] fantastical, careening tale…Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief.…Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level.

The Orphan Master runs an orphanage...and Jun Do may have been the only non-orphan in the place, but that doesn't keep his father, a man of influence, from mistreating him as merrily as if he weren't one of his own flesh and blood. For this is the land of Kim Jong Il, the unhappy Potemkin Village land of North Korea, where even Josef Stalin would have looked around and thought the whole business excessive. Johnson's tale hits the ground running, and fast.... The reader will have to grant the author room to accommodate the show-offishness, which seems to say, with the rest of the book, that in a world run by a Munchkin overlord like Kim, nothing can be too surreal. Indeed, once Fearless Leader speaks, he's a model of weird clarity: "But let's speak of our shared status as nuclear nations another time. Now let's have some blues." Ambitious and very well written, despite the occasional overreach.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Orphan Master's Son:

1. What makes Pak Jun Do believe he is the son of the Orphan Master? Is he right? How does a child become an orphan, what are they used for, and why are they despised by North Koreans?

2. What is the thematic significance of the Americans mistaking Jun Do as "John Doe"? What does the appellation "John Doe" mean to Americans? What does it suggest about Jun Do himself, as well as the millions of people who live under the North Korean flag?

3. How would you describe life in North Korea for its citizens? What do you find most horrifying about the way in which Adam Johnson portrays that society? How would you—or any of us—fare under such circumstances?

4. What do you make of the various characters who express their horror at life in America and the American's lack of protection by their own government? Why would North Koreans prefer their life to that of Americans?

5. Talk about the treatment of women in North Korea? What actually happens to beautiful young women who are born in the provinces? What is their fate?

6. Jun Do tells the Second Mate's wife that he can no longer distinguish dream from reality: that the Second Mate was devoured by sharks or that he floated away on a raft with only a radio. The wife tells Jun Do to "choose the beautiful story." Then the following exchange takes place:

'But isn't it more scary to be utterly alone upon the waters, completely cut off from everyone, no friends, no family, no direction, nothing but a radio for solace?'

She touched the side of his face. 'That's your story,' she said. 'You're trying to tell me your story, aren't you?... Oh, you poor boy. You poor little boy.... Come in off the water, things can be different. You don't need a radio. I'm right here. You don't have to choose to be alone.'

a) What does she mean? Is Jun Do telling his own story?
b) Why is Jun Do more frightened to be "alone upon the waters" than to be eaten by sharks?
c) Why does Jun Do miss the Junma, the captain, and his radio?
d) What is the symbolic significance of his radio work...and the fact he does it at night?

7. Even though Kim Jong Il is offstage more than not, he is ever present in the lives of the characters. How does Adam Johnson portray Dear Leader in this novel? Does Johnson lend him psychological depth? Or is he a cartoonish, one-dimensional villain?

8. The book is disjointed as it shifts perspective, time periods, and even genres. Did you find the structure confusing? The author has described his book as a "trauma narrative." What does he mean?

9. In his days on tunnel patrol, Jun Do thinks to himself...

Never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.

a) How might this statement be considered a thematic concern throughout the novel?
b) What does it mean for individuals who are told not to use their imagination?
c) What does it mean for art or music or literature?

10. The author's wit is on display in The Orphan Master's Son. Were you disturbed by Johnson's humor to convey the grim horrors of life under the DPRK? Or does the author's use comedy, even farce, resemble Charles Dickens in it's ability to highlight a society's malignant insanity?

11. The book converts the second-half of the novel into an adventurous, almost lunatic, quest. Does the second half seem far-fetched to you? Does it matter?

12. How would you describe this book: thriller, coming-of-age, romance, satire?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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