Book Debate: The Orphan Master’s Son
Welcome to our inaugural book debate, between Jo from Booklover Book Reviews and our very own Rebecca Foster. Today they are debating the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. Have a read through, add your comments, and help us choose a winner at the end.
Rebecca gives some opening remarks:
Pak Jun Do is our protagonist and everyman, a ‘John Doe’ representing the mysterious and little-understood country of North Korea (aka the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). His mother, an opera singer, disappeared long ago and is presumed dead; his father runs an orphanage and, for all the love he shows his son, Jun Do might as well be one of the orphans himself. Yet he distinguishes himself as a loyal citizen of the “Dear Leader,” becoming a tunnel rat and naval spy, kidnapping and assassinating defectors and Japanese enemies. All along he dreams of the beautiful Sun Moon, the actress he idolizes and has tattooed on his chest. When his fortunes are reversed and he finds himself in a brutal prison camp, he meets Sun Moon’s husband, Commander Ga, and it takes a legendary battle of wills to decide which man deserves her. With the voices of Korean officials and propagandists narrating Jun Do’s biography, it falls to readers to decide what they will believe about him, and which parts of his epic love story ring true.
North Korea seems to be something of a vogue subject at the moment, what with new movie Olympus Has Fallen, the Inspector O mystery series by James Church, and now Adam Johnson’s prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son.
I read The Orphan Master’s Son back in February and have been reluctant to revisit it ever since – especially now that it has won a Pulitzer Prize – because I feel a slight sense of reader’s shame that maybe I just didn’t get this book properly. The premise sounded fantastic: a madcap tour through life in the repressive state of North Korea, as seen through the experience of Jun Do.
But the book never ‘clicked’ for me; in fact, with a sinking feeling I set it aside after the end of Part One (90 pages in). I did manage to return to it two weeks later and eventually finished it, but I had lost interest and momentum in what proved to be a fatal blow to my potential love for the novel. Perhaps the timing just wasn’t right for me, as I discuss in my other article this week. Nonetheless, it is certainly a thought- and discussion-provoking novel, with much to recommend it. So thank you to Joanne for encouraging me to take another look.
Jo is the editor and lead reviewer of Booklover Book Reviews, a website currently featuring hundreds of book reviews of a wide range of fiction and non-fiction genre, everything from literature and the classics, through to mystery crime thrillers, chick lit, and travel memoirs. Jo is also the creator and host of the Aussie Author Reading Challenge, now in its fourth year.
Let the debate begin!
Rebecca: I know it’s one of the “best books of 2012” – and a Pulitzer winner to boot – but if you’re asking me, The Orphan Master’s Son deserves 3 stars at best.
Jo: Really? I gave it 5 stars and it was tied for first place in my ‘Best Books of 2012’ at Booklover Book Reviews. Well before it won the Pulitzer I was recommending it to all of my friends. What in particular didn’t work for you?
Rebecca: What I found perhaps most off-putting is that the North Korean characters’ speech, ‘translated’ for the reader’s benefit, sounds so much like colloquial American: e.g. “a spunky gal” and many other slang terms. I’m not saying Johnson should have stuck to overly formal, refined speech, but his idioms need to sound natural rather than forced. Readers (or viewers in the case of a film) always make this tacit consent: we will believe that these characters speaking in English to us are ‘really’ speaking in their own languages, except for the fact that we can magically understand them – provided the author doesn’t make it too difficult for us to believe.
I’m especially interested in how our experience of the book may have differed due to the fact that you listened to the audio book and thus heard appropriate accents. Perhaps it was therefore easier for you to buy these North Korean characters speaking “English” with Americanisms aplenty?
Jo: I take your point, and that is something that I have struggled with in some other titles, but in this instance, the use of American colloquialisms did not bother me at all. In fact, I thought it was a great touch. Why? Because it symbolically conveyed the absurdity, and one could say duplicity, of the Communist framework. Despite the rulers of the North Korea of the novel (and probably in reality) publicly denigrating and inciting hatred for the American way of life, and I think capitalist societies more generally, these same individuals actually coveted and sought to emulate that way of life for themselves. In the novel, those in the upper echelons of the communist hierarchy went to great lengths to procure for themselves that which Americans enjoyed – cars, fashion, even music – while the broader population starved.
Rebecca: One thing I did admire about the novel was its multiplicity of voices: it alternates between first- and third-person points-of-view, and also includes the propaganda broadcasts. I thought this made the book unique, especially when you consider that Part One is (I think) meant to be the biography of Pak Jun Do, as produced by his captors in Part Two.
Jo: I completely agree. I think it is Adam Johnson’s ingenious use of various narrative viewpoints that elevates this novel from sensationalism to high quality literature. I think the propaganda broadcasts in particular were a stroke of genius. Some critics have questioned the plausibility/believability of this story element, but having travelled in a communist country in the 1990s myself, I found that aspect actually one of the more credible.
As well as providing great pacing and compelling tension, the multivocality enhanced Johnson’s scope for communication with his audience. The Orphan Master’s Son is like one of those gorgeous Russian dolls in that there are stories being told and messages being conveyed at multiple levels – there is the story of the characters as overtly described; there is the story of the part those characters played in North Korean society; the story of North Korean’s place within international society; and the most important story of all, the story about different means of power and control, and ultimately the enduring strength of the human spirit.
Rebecca: My favorite part of the book was undoubtedly the bizarre diplomatic mission to Texas, especially the humorous observations this elicits about American culture, such as the quotes below:
The “Dear Leader” says to Sun Moon: “‘It’s called a gui-tar. It’s used to perform American rural music. It’s said to be especially popular in Texas,’ he told her. ‘It’s also the instrument of choice for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.’”
“[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.”
“She was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.”
Jo: Yes, the trip to America and the misunderstandings between the diplomatic parties were the catalyst for some wonderful laugh-out-loud moments. I think the more serious message underlying these exchanges was in the way they highlighted the propensity for gross misunderstandings and the dangers of narrow-minded thinking, no matter our race or creed – something Western cultures are certainly not immune to either. I think through showing the stupidity of the characters’ disrespect for their counterpart’s way of life, the author is actually telling an important cautionary tale. We show disrespect for another society, including North Korea, at our own folly.
Rebecca: While I admired the novel’s use of voice and the humorous look at failed cross-cultural understanding, where I think it failed is in creating believable and sympathetic characters. Jun Do functions so well as a Korean everyman (“John Doe”) that I feel he is just a general stereotype rather than a distinctive character. This may, of course, have something to do with the fact that he is presented through the eyes of propagandists and tormentors. I also felt that a character like Commander Ga was too stereotypically villainous, and Sun Moon was a bit of a blank. The characters were so generic that I often had trouble telling them apart. For me this is a big pitfall in any novel.
Jo: Interestingly, I think the use of character stereotypes is very intentional, and was very well done. While I am not an expert on communist societies, I have experienced one first hand and thus have my personal opinions on how their control structure works. In the main, people are not encouraged to stand out from the crowd. In fact, they are often persecuted for doing so. The ideology is that no one deserves anything more than they are given by society and they must fulfil their assigned (stereotypical) role in society for the greater good. Key message: such a society rewards behaving like an automaton to such an extent that it is easier (and safer) for many to actually succumb to the rhetoric, rather than swim against the tide. Little value is placed on individuality. Anyone that displays strength of character or free-will puts themselves at risk of ‘disappearing’. There is no such thing as free speech.
One of the standout moments in the novel for me was this piece of dialogue:
“What happened?” Buik asked him.
“I told her the truth about something,” Ga answered.
“You’ve got to stop doing that,” Buik said, “it’s bad for people’s health.”
While I felt the use of stereotypes was intentional, I do still think the lead character Jun Do and a couple of other key characters were very well realised within context. I for one identified and felt a deep respect and empathy for Jun Do. While they may not have shared with the reader all their heart-felt desires (a foreign concept for someone brought up in that society), the audience was never under any illusions as to key characters’ strength of spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Rebecca: I remain uneasy about the novel’s mixture of black humor and sadistic violence. Some authors manage this balance quite well, but I felt Johnson did not.
The novel is certainly an admirable achievement for an American; of course it is always impressive to imagine yourself into the situation of people half a world away with whom you have little in common, but especially so in the case of North Korea, a place shrouded in secrecy and official party spin. Johnson traveled and researched widely, and he doesn’t flinch from showing some of the Dear Leader’s terrifying torture techniques (including a particularly harrowing description of lobotomy by ten-centimeter nail), but I still don’t find this as useful an exposé of North Korea as Barbara Demick’s 2010 journalistic account, Nothing to Envy. For me this was a much more helpful discussion of the plight of North Koreans, with real people rather than a novelist’s caricatures. Another book with similar themes (war, imprisonment, and cruelty in a little-known Asian country; as well as meaningful tattoos and forbidden relationships) but more heart and meaning to it was The Garden of Evening Mists by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng, which was shortlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize and won the Man Asian Literary Prize.
Jo: While I agree The Orphan Master’s Son will not be to everyone’s tastes, I think in this day and age the scourge of ignorance is all too pervasive in society, and sometimes it is good for us to be shocked out of the cosy lives we have made ourselves, even if it is from within the safe confines of our favourite reading chair. From my original review: “The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel that should be required reading. Why? Because it makes you question paradigms. Is information power or ignorance bliss?”
I have not had the opportunity to read those other titles you mention, so I cannot comment as to their relative merits. In respect to the black humour though, a literary device I am quite partial to myself, I think Johnson treads the fine line very well. In my original review of The Orphan Master’s Son I wrote:
“Adam Johnson has managed to write a novel that exposes in an entertaining way the absurd while maintaining the deepest respect for the people involved. The reader is kept on the edge of their seat, on an emotional roller coaster – mixing hilarity with heartbreak, the disturbing with the uplifting. In The Orphan Master’s Son Adam Johnson shines a light on the best and worst of human nature.”
At no point did I think Johnson derides the people of North Korea, nor the people of America or any other country for that matter, just the archetypes that symbolise the worst of human behaviour. And if one cannot rally against the human species’ propensity for doing great harm to our fellow man, what is the point of this thing called free speech? … This societal right that The Orphan Master’s Son reminds us we must never take for granted.