The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson, I learned from reading the back flap of my cherished First Edition of The Orphan Master’s Son, is a professor and lives in San Francisco. I got chills–genius is always so close and yet so far, right? I feel a stupid sort of pride in the fact that the author of such a great book lives in my neck of the woods.

I originally read this book right after it came out. I had just joined a book club and it was the very first book I read with that club; unfortunately it and maybe a couple of others were the only books I thoroughly enjoyed over three years in the club (a disappointing few which in part led to the formation of the SBC). I reread The Orphan Master’s son last week and it was every bit as good as I remembered with the added oomph being that I now know so much more about North Korea (thanks, Donald Trump) than I did in 2011, and that made it all the more impressive and intriguing.

First, it still amazes me that Johnson could write in such detail about a country that is so secretive. The insight and compassionate understanding of human character and knowledge of totalitarian methods and thought is astonishing. The characters he creates are incredibly memorable, especially Jun Do. Jun Do (John Doe) is a super-hero/everyman who begins life in an orphanage yet is not an orphan, who seems to always be in costume, who is, like an enlightened master, in the world but not of the world.

The character and situations reminded me at time of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. He’s a guy that is commandeered by the state for his special abilities, whose life takes crazy turns and who is ultimately sacrificed. Quote from Slothrop: “It’s an evil game. . .You play because you have nothing better to do, but that doesn’t make it right.”

There are many theories about the name Slothrop, but the word sloth in it connotes a shiftless person, drifting wherever authority pushes him. Jun Do also commits heinous acts (abducting Japanese, etc) on behalf of his government and does not defect or commit suicide as an alternative. Johnson explains the Jun Do/John Doe homonym but I wish he hadn’t; I got it on my own and I’m sure the majority of readers did also.

There are short sections in which so much is described so succinctly and well that they take on a gravity that seems incredible relative to their length. For example, Jun Do’s life at the orphanage is barely sketched, but it is incredibly rich. I was amazed at how few paragraphs Johnson spent on it, yet I remembered it so vividly. Similarly, I remembered Jun Do’s time in prison, where the helpful nurse taught him to eat moths and–now infamous in fiction–bull semen as a way to craftily keep up his strength, as much longer but it is actually a short but intense part of the book. Johnson chose believable yet highly original and visceral details to tightly fasten these aspects of the story to the reader’s memory.

The title of the book is a bit of a mystery. Jun Do’s father is a very minor character in the book, yet forms who Jun Do is completely. He is in a sort of limbo–an almost orphan, almost an immaculate conception in a way; he has no mother and barely a father. He drifts on the boat, allowing himself to be tattooed with the image of Sun-Moon, he listens to the rowing American girls and the chatter on the satellite in space, his identity shifts depending on who is defining him at the moment.

[Spoiler] A detail I appreciated: I was so sad when the puppy Brando got taken to Korea and thought he would end up as somebody’s dinner for sure, but it was such a nice surprise to see him turn up at Sun Moon’s house later in the novel. He died valiantly in the end, but had a pretty good life for a dog sent to North Korea.

[Major spoiler] The peaches: you had to read very carefully to figure out what the heck was going on with the peaches. As  an American, I never think of botulism when I encounter canned goods, so I had to reread the parts about the peaches a couple of times before I understood that no, they were not a treat for the whole family but the equivilent of a cyanide pill.

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