-structure: division into Parts
-point of view: braiding the narrative threads of different perspectives
-plot model: snowball
As with his mentor Robert Olen Butler’s 1993 Pulitzer-winning Vietnamese-community-centered collection A Good Scent from A Strange Mountain, you might be tempted, based on The Orphan Master’s Son’s shockingly well-observed details and descriptions of North Korean life, to make assumptions about Adam Johnson’s ethnicity. Well, he’s white. So let’s examine another piece of fiction by a white guy. (Though if we piece together some apparently biographical info from his new collection–out today!–specifically “Interesting Facts,” Adam Johnson might have some Native American blood.)
Jun Do is the eponymous orphan master’s son; though we visit this orphanage at the novel’s opening, the narrative swiftly moves past this early time in Jun Do’s life and leaves the rest of the info we get about it to be recounted in memories. Jun Do enters the army and is trained as a “tunnel rat,” able to perform combat in the pitch blackness. The book’s first sequence that lingers in scene arrives when he is ordered to help kidnap Japanese people, with the first targets being practice for an opera singer the Dear Leader wants. During the course of this mission, Gil, an ambassador’s son, tries to defect, and Jun Do stops him. Eventually he’s reposted to a fishing boat, where he picks up foreign radio signals, which he believes is his reward. The fishing crew, at first wary, warms up to him when he lets them listen to the transmissions of a pair of women rowing around the world. Then, some Americans board their boat and take portraits of the Dear Leader. In what’s probably the book’s most prevalent theme, the captain says of the North Korean government:
“They only care about the story we’re going to tell, and that story will be useful to them or it won’t.”
They decide to exaggerate the Americans’ aggression to transform what they see as their disgrace into heroism. They succeed in fooling the officials, and the next time they go out, the crew makes Jun Do an official member, since earlier he almost gave himself away as a spy to the Americans. All fishermen have their wives tattooed on their chest, and so they ink Sun Moon, the national actress, on Jun Do’s; even though she’s married to the high-ranking Commander Ga, other countries won’t know who she is. This time out, the second mate defects, and Jun Do does not try to stop him. The story they have to come up with this time is that they were again attacked by the Americans and the second mate was tossed to the sharks; Jun Do sustains a bite to corroborate the story that he tried to save him, which the government, after a brutal interrogation, buys. He lives with the second mate’s wife until he recovers enough to be swept off to a delegation going to Texas to tell the story of what the Americans did to his crew. On the way back, they have to come up with a story about why the Americans refused to give back the “Dead Leader’s toy,” which will turn out to be a uranium detector, and so tell the interrogating government officials tales of the Americans treating them like garbage. Following the interrogation, Jun Do is taken to a prison mine, “and from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.” End Part I.
Part II begins one year later, and alternates between three points of view. We begin with the first-person perspective of an interrogator at Division 42, where Commander Ga’s being brought in for murdering Sun Moon and her children. The narrator’s unit’s job is to write “biographies” of the subjects who come in to get their full story, while their rival unit’s method is to torture mercilessly. The interrogator is convinced Ga is an impersonator, and that his story will be more important than any they’ve gotten. He asks Ga how he met Sun Moon, at which point we switch into the third-person perspective of “Commander Ga,” who, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is Jun Do. After moving back and forth between the first person and the third person that’s filling in the things the first-person narrator wants but doesn’t get to know, we eventually braid in a third narrative thread in the voice of the loudspeaker that North Korean citizens are legally obliged to keep on in their homes. A prologue that subtly presents many of the elements that will appear in Part I (Sun Moon’s movies, rumors Sun Moon and Commander Ga aren’t in love, allegations of kidnapping the Japanese, and American sneak attacks on fishing boats, and a new opera singer) has been given in the speaker’s voice:
“CITIZENS, gather ’round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors—wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!”
In Part II, the loudspeaker gives us the propagandized explanation of what happened to Sun Moon at the hands of Commander Ga, a different version running parallel to what we’re getting in Ga’s sections. The loudspeaker and Ga’s narrative at first act like stepping stones, one picking up where the other left off, but as we move along they start to overlap more, and we experience two different versions of the same events.
What the first-person narrator is obsessed with getting, in addition to the info of what ultimately happened to Sun Moon, is the biography of the person he’s convinced is impersonating Ga, since the real Ga’s personal history is public knowledge. That is, what he wants is everything the readers got access to in Part I, as well as what continues in “Ga”’s threads in Part II. Were he to succeed in constructing Ga’s biography (he won’t), it would look exactly like what the reader gets access to that he doesn’t. Part II is dedicated to revealing how Jun Do got from the prison to the interrogation bay, how he became Ga, and what happened to Sun Moon. Skipping over the period immediately following where we leave off in Part I is a nice strategy to create suspense. We want to know how Jun Do became Commander Ga as badly as the interrogator does.
We find out he escapes the prison when Commander Ga visits and tries his patented “man attack” (raping a guy to test whether he’s strong enough to resist) on Jun Do at the bottom of a mine at the prison. Ga is a tae kwon do champion, but when Jun Do, the trained tunnel rat, knocks the one lightbulb out, it’s over. Sun Moon initially thinks it’s a loyalty test when Jun Do turns up at her door telling her her husband is dead, but when the Dear Leader acknowledges Jun Do as being Ga (his impetus to do so being that Ga was one of the only people who ever disrespected him), Sun Moon has little choice but to accept him. They gradually become intimate initially not physically, but by sharing their stories. When Sun Moon sees Casablanca, a gift Jun Do returned with from Texas, she realizes what she’s been doing is not real acting, and vows to escape. Jun Do’s closeness to the Dear Leader provides the perfect opportunity to do so, as he helps him plan a welcome for the American delegation coming for one of the rowers from Part I, whom the Dear Leader has kidnapped. Jun Do succeeds in getting Sun Moon and her children on the American plane only by not going with them, by staying behind to both distract the Dear Leader and then bear the brunt of his punishment. Thus does “Commander Ga” wind up in Division 42.
Jun Do never divulges his story in full to the interrogator, who comes to believe that “Ga” killed Sun Moon and her kids out of love for her as the only way he could get them out of the pain of this tyrannical state. He’s so moved by this love, and by the emptiness in his own life it’s revealed, that he kills “Ga” and then himself by hooking them up to one of the torture machines, saving “Ga” from being killed publicly in the stadium by a giant branding iron that was originally designed as a mocking gift for the Americans.
Johson’s leap in time between Parts I and II allows him to get away with what is a fairly outlandish plot: a lowly prisoner kills and takes the place of a high-ranking official in an extremely repressive country and no one bats an eye. If Johnson had proceeded through Part II chronologically from Part I, Ga’s coming to the prison mine when he does could seem too much of a coincidence. Deferring the revelation of this episode makes us implicitly less likely to think this, since it seems like more time has passed than actually has. Not that this is all the groundwork Johnson does to pull off Jun Do becoming Ga. How Jun Do does this is our first-person interrogator’s second-most burning question. The most burning question is how did he get Sun Moon to love him. The answer to the second-most: Jun Do’s been prepared for this, brutally interrogated twice by now–he knows how to give people the story that they want, the one that’s useful to them, as the captain advised. The answer to the most: Sun Moon is the one person he doesn’t make up a story for, but is honest with. Eventually in reciprocation she tells him the story of how she was discovered and became the national actress. The only other person who knows this story is the Dear Leader. By sharing it with Jun Do, Sun Moon is putting them on equal footing.
When we ask, how did we get here, to Jun Do becoming Ga, and trace events back, as the structure of Part II inherently forces us to do, we see that the repression (and greed) of the state is basically what started all of this. How did Jun Do wind up in the prison mine in a position to kill Ga? Ga is there because he’s obsessed with finding uranium for nuclear arms, but Jun Do is there because he went to America and can’t be allowed to tell others what he’s seen, which would conflict with the official North Korean portrayal of Americans. He went to America because he was supposed to share the horrifying story of what the Americans did to him in order to shame and manipulate them into giving up something North Korea wanted (related to nuclear arms). He had a story to tell because he made one up, and he had to make one up because the second mate defected, and the second mate defected because the state is so repressive. The decisions Jun Do is forced to make under the state’s repression lead the state to lash out at him ever more aggressively. But the state’s repression is also exactly what enables Jun Do to defeat it—even if the state kills him in the end, he defeats it in successfully smuggling out Sun Moon, its national symbol of alleged purity. This is a happy ending in literary, not Hollywood terms. He manages to take from the Dear Leader at the same time what the Dear Leader has taken from him: the possibility of a life with Sun Moon. The Dear Leader has gotten a taste of his own medicine, and he opened up the door for himself to get it by the vengeful spectacle he felt the need to produce for the Americans; had he not fetl the need to humiliate them, had he not kidnapped an American in the first place, there would have been no opportunity for Sun Moon to escape. Most importantly, he’s seen that things can happen outside his control:
The Dear Leader stood alone, confused. He’d been halfway through a long book inscription. Even though he stared at the bloody spectacle, he seemed not to recognize an event that occurred without his authorization.
No coincidence he’s in the middle of a “book inscription” at this climactic moment when Jun Do sicks a dog on the official trying to get at the crate that’s about to shuttle Sun Moon and her children to their escape. The Dear Leader keeps control of the country by keeping control of its narrative (like claiming retirement consists of glamorous beach communities instead of prison mines), but thanks to Jun Do it slips from his grasp. The one in power is the one who controls the narrative, which is something else Jun Do wrests from the Dear Leader in the course of the book, via its structure. It doesn’t matter that the loudspeaker gets the last word, just like it doesn’t matter that Jun Do dies—this is what had to be sacrificed for the original source of power to be undermined. At the end of the day, Johnson’s theme is the power of story, and how story constitutes identity—both individual and national.
Johnson has said of Jun Do:
In fiction, a character like this is a blank slate, one without advocates or champions, a person for whom even the basic notions of love and bonding come as big discoveries. And, of course, in North Korea your primary relationship is with the state. Your loyalties must lie with the regime first and your family second, which makes an orphan of everyone to some degree, and the Kim regime the true orphan master.
And in Johnson’s narrative, the true orphan master gives birth to the seeds of its own destruction.