It's pure happenstance that publication of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son coincided so neatly with the death of former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il—but if sales of Johnson's book get a boost from fascination inspired by that batshit footage of the departed Dear Leader's tightly choreographed funeral, it's nothing this great novel doesn't deserve on its own merits.
The Orphan Master's Son explores both the poverties and excesses of North Korea, its official narratives and its personal ones, through the ever-shifting lens of one man, Jun Do. He is born in an orphanage, where he's farmed out as labor for dangerous factory work; he goes on to work as a tunnel soldier, prowling the dark under the DMZ; then he's a state-sanctioned kidnapper, abducting Japanese and South Koreans; and finally a translator on a ship, where he monitors radio communications from across the sea. It's while working on the ship that he learns a lesson that will serve him for the rest of the book: In North Korea, it doesn't matter if a story is true—it only matters that it's accepted as the truth. All of the fishermen on his boat have tattoos of their wives on their chests; to better disguise himself, he is tattooed with the face of the beautiful film star Sun Moon. Later, after a stint in a labor camp, he reinvents himself as Commander Ga, husband to Sun Moon, a fiction so audacious it's widely taken for truth. Unfortunately, though, Ga's rival for Sun Moon's affections is none other than the Dear Leader himself. Kim Jong-il is a comical figure, ridiculous and out of touch but no less dangerous for it, as he nostalgically reminisces about the good times he and Sun Moon have had, riding his personal train to "nowhere in particular" and "inventing new kinds of sushi rolls."
Johnson packs his novel with telling little details about life in a repressive, poverty-stricken, tightly controlled regime. One character is pitied for his large stature, because "to have that kind of size meant you'd eaten meat as a child, something that would most likely come from collaborating with the Japanese. Whether he'd cozied up to the Japs or not, everyone he'd met, over his whole life, probably suspected he had." Clues like these are all over the bodies of North Koreans: notched ears, scars, tattoos, rotten teeth, broken fingers. These details provide ironic counterpoint to the official storyline, which is blared in a propaganda-style update at the beginning of every new chapter in Jun Do's story—updates that cheerily remind us that North Korea is a country where loyal citizens are cared for by the state, where there is no hunger or crime, where elderly citizens are sent to retire on sunny beaches, and if they never write or call it must be because they are so busy having fun.
Toward the end of the book, as Jun Do is waiting to learn what will become of him, he stands in front of a shelf of bootlegged American DVDS, "looking for one that might address his situation, but it didn't seem Americans made such movies... where was the film that had no beginning, an unrelenting middle, and ended over and over?" Similarly, with The Orphan Master's Son, Johnson has hit upon a way of describing North Korea that feels true, even in its fictions, as a controlled, propagandistic story unfolds alongside a painfully human one.