Saturday, August 31, 2013
Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Author: Adam Johnson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Personal Copy
This book would be rated: R for violence, sex, and language
The Orphan Master's Son is the kind of book I might assign if I were teaching a course on 21st century American fiction. And I wouldn't necessarily assign it because I think it's the best book ever-- it's more because I would want to hear what my students would have to say after reading it. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013, and as an educated reader, a writer, and someone who reviews books as an avocation, it's books like this that make me second-guess myself.
The premise of the novel is fascinating-- Pak Jun Do grew up in an orphanage in North Korea, where his father, the orphan master, tested his mettle at a young age by making Jun Do decide which jobs to assign to the orphans (essentially who would eat and who wouldn't). As a young man, Jun Do becomes a kidnapper-- one of the men who pulls up a boat in the middle of the night and steals people off beaches in Japan or South Korea or China. After several years of rising through the ranks (and sometimes falling), he eventually assumes the identity of a powerful general he met in prison, and also takes on the general's wife and children.
My main sensation while reading The Orphan Master's Son was confusion. Was his father really an orphan master or was Jun Do just another orphan? What qualified him to get chosen for his jobs? What really happened to the original general? How did he really get out of prison? Johnson does a wonderful job making a reader feel unsettled, and I don't this is accidental-- he's working to get us into the mindset of someone who might be living in North Korea, where lies stand in for the truth more often than not. But as a reader, it also had the effect of making me less interested in reading than I might otherwise be. While I believe that innovation in fiction is noteworthy and important, I also think that sometimes innovation comes at the expense of the narrative, and I definitely think that's true in The Orphan Master's Son. It was a difficult book to read not just because of the subject matter, but also because Johnson seemed intent on making it a difficult book to read. And while I respect that, I also think that I probably would have chosen a different book to win the Pulitzer.