Congratulations to Adam Johnson whose Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer yesterday.
It was published a month after North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il’s death, with the unforgettable image of millions of people mourning a monomaniacal strongman. Since the novel takes North Korean culture and political leadership as its setting and themes, reviews naturally placed the novel in the context of those events. Still, reviews ranged from very positive to mixed, hinging on whether the reviewer thought Johnson’s literary technique of adopting elements of magical realism (a close sibling of the fable, where the whole story creates an alternate world that becomes a metaphor for our own) is successful.
Here are two such reviews.
The New York Times review last year was very positive. It put the novel in the context of those events and noted that the novel reveals North Korea’s”state-sponsored storytelling.” It quotes from the novel:
“Where we are from,” says one character, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
The review praises Johnson’s novelistic ability, especially in “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….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.”
USA Today’s reviewer was a little more ambivalent, calling the first half of the novel “a tour de force” but argues that the novel as a whole doesn’t work, given a surprising plot twist “complicated by a narrative switch. Chapters no longer run in a recognizable sequence. The narrator shifts from one section to the next. And this happens as you’re trying to understand what’s real and what’s not as Jun Do switches into his new life and begins plotting a double cross of his own.”
It goes on to suggest that Johnson’s literary technique may well reflect the confusion of life in North Korea where nothing is as it seems, (while stopping short of identifying that technique as magical realism) but adds that “it also knocks the reader off-balance.” It concludes: “(The) storytelling vivid and bold, his North Korea brilliantly rendered. But midway, a smart literary thriller sprouts into a David Mitchell novel without warning – making The Orphan Master’s Son feel divided into two very different novels.”
Nevertheless, that bold push into the farther reaches of storytelling, that celebration of the imagination (which also characterizes Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, another worthy contender for the Pulitzer) deserves recognition.