Every year for almost a decade, I’ve read whatever work of fiction wins the Pulitzer Prize. I do this to keep up with trends in literary publishing—what does the establishment say is the best fiction published this year? I also do it to force myself to read books to which I am not naturally drawn. It was easy to pick up Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Geraldine Brooks’s March, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Left to my own instincts, I would pull down these quiet volumes exploring themes like forgiveness, redemption, familial relations, and the struggles and quiet desperation of ordinary life, even if they hadn’t won a prize. Reading the Pulitzer Prize winner every year, however, also has forced me to read novels like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—a darkly comic coming-of-age story steeped in sex, crime, and violence and written with a daunting amount of Spanglish—and A Visit from the Goon Squad—a collection of short stories centering around the music industry and featuring the timeworn triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. I usually end my yearly dip into prize-winning fiction with an appreciation of why the committee chose this work, from the standpoint of literary craft, but I admit I don’t always relish reading fiction I wouldn’t have chosen for myself.
When I read a synopsis of this year’s Pulitzer winner, I sighed, ordered my copy, and prepared to plug away at a book that I instinctively felt that I wouldn’t much enjoy, even if I appreciated its literary merits. A thriller set in North Korea, telling the story of a professional kidnapper who eventually becomes a rival to Kim Jung Il in an attempt to save his actress-love? From its description, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son didn’t even seem to have the requisite “American” flare that is characteristic of Pulitzer choices.
But The Orphan Master’s Son won me over in ways I was not expecting and in ways unrelated to why most critics have been praising it. It is true, The Orphan Master’s Son is a thriller set in North Korea. The main character, Pak Jun Do, spends his childhood in an orphanage, has a career as a kidnapper, abducting and sometimes killing people he finds on the shores of Japan, is sent on a diplomatic mission to Texas, spends time in a brutal prison camp, impersonates a Korean military commander, falls in love with this commander’s actress wife, meets and spars with Kim Jung Il, participates in a daring rescue mission, and is brutally tortured. There are graphic scenes of torture, among other forms of violence.
Most summaries say that this is a novel about North Korea: about the ridiculous and fantastical narratives created by an oppressive state. They say it is a novel that teaches us how bad totalitarianism can be, a novel that gives us a glimpse into a place we know little about. Critics praise Johnson for his research into this elusive place and for prompting his readers to gaze with awe and horror at how absurd evil can be.
But while The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, I don’t think it is ultimately a novel about North Korea. If this were just a novel about an oppressive state, I would not be all that interested. I can read other accounts of oppressive states that are based more closely on documentary evidence and are more likely to depict things that have actually happened. No matter how thorough Johnson’s research (and he does seem to have done as much as he reasonably could), a lot of what is depicted in this novel is, by Johnson’s own admission, guesswork and fantasy. We cannot really say whether Johnson’s depiction of the machinations of life among the ruling elite of North Korea is accurate because we don’t really know very much about what goes on there. And Johnson writes in the tradition of magic realism, in which improbable events stand in for claims about what actually happens in an oppressive state. Johnson gives a clear outline in his afterward of what he based on research and what he imaginatively constructed. We can say that the novel is a horrifying, imaginative, and compelling depiction of a totalitarian state in the tradition of George Orwell’s 1984. But again, I don’t think we can really say that it is a novel about North Korea.
What the novel is, more fundamentally, is the story of a character, a hero, who does terrible things and terribly noble things. It is a novel about love and fidelity and courage, a novel about a martyr. What won me over to The Orphan Master’s Son is its admirable protagonist, an unusual occurrence in contemporary fiction.
The novel is divided into two halves. The first, titled “The Biography of Jun Do,” tells some of the story of Jun Do’s childhood and how he is first conscripted into doing awful things for the state. The first half ends with an extended narrative about a diplomatic mission to Texas and the comic attempt of the North Koreans to both impress and intimidate their American hosts. Upon his return to North Korea, Jun Do is sent to a prison camp, and we are told that “nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.” We learn, by the end, that this “biography” is the writing of another character who collects the life stories of the people he tortures.
The second half of the novel, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” tells the story of how Jun Do comes to escape the prison camp and, stepping into the life of the dead Commander Ga, comes to interact with those at the highest levels of power in North Korea, including Kim Jung Il, the “dear leader” himself. The way that Johnson pulls off the narrative of this section is awfully clever and certainly earns him his Pulitzer. While I appreciate the skill with which Johnson crafted this half of the book, what I liked even more was the way in which he created an admirable character who is given the ability to make moral choices and a love story in which I could believe that these people knew each other well enough to want to die for one another.
Although Jun Do is coerced into doing some terrible things and does even more in self-defense, he is not simply corrupted by the corrupt system around him. Jun Do sees his own actions with horror and regret. Throughout the second half of the novel, he consistently makes choices to help and protect, to act according to principle rather than expediency, and to sacrifice his own good for that of others. Johnson’s achievement is that this does not come off as trite. I can imagine a novel in which a character as good as Jun Do would seem unbelievably one-dimensional. But because of the absurdity of the evil that he confronts, Jun Do’s choice to act morally is portrayed as a matter of survival. In order to be a whole person, in order not to fall to pieces like Winston in 1984, he cannot act the role created by the state—even as he, ironically, is literally acting out someone else’s life.
The love story in The Orphan Master’s Son also resists the conventions of such stories in contemporary fiction. Romantic love, in this novel, is not depicted as something that transcends the characters’ other commitments. The complex plotting of the novel makes it possible for the love affair between Jun Do and the actress Sun Moon to occur “within marriage” (as Jun Do impersonates her husband); indeed, this novel has one of the more affirming depictions of a marriage that I’ve read recently. The romantic love between Jun Do and Sun Moon is also closely related, in the novel, to her commitments to her family—to her own mother and to her children. One would think that two characters finding love in the midst of a totalitarian state would be finding a love that is separate from and transcends the difficulties of their situation. Johnson resists this well-worn trope, however, and depicts a romantic relationship that is idealized but also completely integrated with the reality of personal obligation and moral commitment.
In reading the second half of the novel, I began to understand too why this novel set in North Korea was an appropriate choice for one of the preeminent American literary prizes. This novel celebrates values that Americans love to praise. For example, one of the characters is moved to reject the absurdity and hypocrisy of North Korean life after watching a classic American movie and realizing that truthful storytelling can only happen in a place where people are free. And the emotional climax of the novel comes after Jun Do completes a rescue mission at great personal sacrifice and reflects back to an earlier moment when an American character had asked him if he knew what it meant to feel free. At the time, he had not understood the question. After he helps someone escape North Korea, though, he reflects, “It could be felt, he now knew. His fingers were buzzing with it, it rattled his breathing, it allowed him to suddenly see all the lives he might have lived…”
The Orphan Master’s Son is a thriller set in North Korea, and it does all the things a thriller about a totalitarian state should do. It creates a lively and complex plot full of twists and revelations, showcasing terrible violence and setting out a clear political critique. But it is also a novel about a hero who sacrifices his life for love and freedom. That’s what won me over.
Susan Bruxvoort Lipscomb is Associate Professor of English at Houghton College.