Friday, January 31, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

There are some good things about this novel: there are some wonderful descriptive passages, particularly descriptions of the sea during the period when the protagonist is on a fishing boat.  I thought of Moby Dick.  A section about 15 pages long where a North Korean delegation visits a Texas ranch is laugh-aloud funny.  The book as a whole has a certain imaginative, surreal zaniness.

That's about it.  Basically, it's a trashy piece of work.  Reading it is like reading the script of a B adventure movie.  It follows the life of an orphan in North Korea who, through a series of unlikely events, comes to masquerade as a member of the elite.  Outside of the descriptive passages mentioned, the prose is adequate to mediocre.  The dialogue is stilted.  The real problem has to do with plot and characterization.  Both are totally subservient to building scenes.  It's like one of those operas where the plot and characterization serve only to maneuver the singers onto the stage where they can emote beautifully.  I think of I Puritani, written during the height of the fashion of mad scenes, where the heroine goes mad and sings a gorgeous aria, then, since one mad scene is good two must be better, recovers but suddenly goes mad again when she sees her boyfriend out riding with another woman, and finally regains her sanity  - for the opera has a happy ending.  But here there is no beautiful music.  The Orphan Master's Son has not one, but two endings, both spuriously happy, one highly suitable for a grade B Hollywood adventure movie and the other for a grade B North Korean adventure movie.

Note that there are several scenes of horrendous torture.  Someone who would be uncomfortable with reading vivid torture should skip this book.

Someone trying to defend the plot and characterization might assert that life in a totalitarian regime is often arbitrary, and, as Michael Kundera has explored so movingly, under the pressure of constant police scrutiny, if you make up a story about yourself, or someone else makes it up, that is who you become.  The problem in this book is that the manipulative plot and jerky characterization give no feeling of authenticity.  I am no more convinced I have learned anything reliable about North Korea than I would be convinced I had learned about the settlement of the Great Plains form watching a spaghetti western or about Renaissance Scotland by attending a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Several fine novels address the effect of authoritarian regimes on human fate and character from the inside with great insight and authenticity.  Here are a few that come to mind:  From nearby China, Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian. Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other novels. The long-term consequences of oppression are thoughtfully portrayed in Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad and The Rings of Saturn and other novels by W. G. Sebald. Read one of them instead.

I don't keep current on American fiction, so I don't have any idea what the Pulitzer committee had to choose from last year, but, if there was nothing better than this, it was a bad year.

1 comment:

  1. Well, thanks. There's another book I don't need to read.