This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning adventure novel, is an imaginative and thrilling effort. The story is set in the North Korea of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-Il. The country is described as “a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them.” It’s a ramshackle, fun-house-mirror Potemkin village ruled entirely by the self-aggrandizing and often bizarre whims of its Dear Leader. One’s identity is decided for one, and even that can change from day to day. One can be an enemy of the state in the evening, and a national hero come morning. One may even become yesterday’s national hero today, and replace that person among their family and friends. That’s the experience of Pak Jun Do, the book’s protagonist. He careens from role to role: a non-orphan who is nonetheless treated as an orphan; a state-sanctioned kidnapper of Japanese citizens; a fishing-boat radio operator who spies on other countries’ transmissions; a member of a diplomatic delegation to the U. S.; an ostensible traitor condemned to hard labor in the mines; the official substitute for a national celebrity; and finally a genuine hero who sacrifices all for love in successful defiance of the country's despot. Johnson has crafted a compelling, suspenseful black farce out of Pak Jun Do’s travails, and the conflicts between state-declared reality and the truth of the various circumstances are by turns disturbing and hilarious. The comic high points are Johnson’s treatments of the absurdly fanciful propaganda missives that tell what happens as Dear Leader wishes it to be. They are so over-the-top in their flattery of his twerpy albeit megalomaniacal vanities that a reader often cannot help but laugh out loud. Johnson’s handling of the story’s adventure and humor elements are first-rate, but what really sets the book apart is his evocation of the tragedy of the North Korean people, who endure horrible oppression and poverty in the wake of their ruler’s often lunatic egotism. It’s a terrific novel: hard to put down while one is reading it, and harder to forget once one is finished.