Apr 24, 2016

Dinner at the Orphanage with Larry

Men's book club the orphan master's son
If Larry's intent last Tuesday was to serve us something that approximated--in tone or taste--the cuisine of Adam Johnson's North Korea, he did a terrible job.  There was no fresh bird's breast, no toxic peaches, no purloined shrimp, and thankfully no ox secretions.  Larry instead took us south of the 38th parallel so we could feast guilt-free on bulgogi, salmon, rice, kimchi (homemade), and mochi (also homemade).  Well-nourished, and with guest Stuart at our table, we looked across the DMZ and wondered about the strange world that inspired The Orphan Master's Son.

(A special acknowledgment is owed to Tom and Dean, who transported Stan and his new wheelchair to Larry's and back.  Stan's recent motorcycle accident in Mexico and his return odyssey--10 hours to the border in the back of a pickup, and another 9 to the hospital in S.F.!--are quite the story.  Stan, we wish you a fast recovery.)

The Book
Johnson's 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is, on its surface, the story of an Everyman character (named Jun Do) who while navigating the absurdity of modern-day North Korea becomes a symbol of its extremes.  Born to an orphan master, raised among orphans, and later working variously as a kidnapper and an intelligence officer, Jun Do's early years are full of the contradictions of North Korean society.  Johnson ups the ante in Part 2 of the book when the reader realizes that the Commander Ga character from Part 1 has disappeared and Jun Do has assumed his identity.  No longer Everyman, Jun Do's real identity is open to question (literally, as his interrogation spans all of Part 2).

Our positive rating (7.6) belied the mutterings of some (Roy and Dan, I'm talking about you), whose forward progress suffered during the book's transition to Part 2.  With its confusing character changes and relentlessly shifting point of view (back and forth from a literarily omniscient third person to a politically omniscient second person--speaking from a state loudspeaker--to the first person Interrogator posing as our protagonist), not everyone was impressed by Johnson's virtuosity.  Nor was everyone satisfied by the novel's fanciful detour to Texas and that state's later role in the story's climax.

We were all, however, entranced by the many sordid DPRK details extracted (or manufactured) by Johnson.   Replete with gulags, prison mines, foreign kidnappings, widespread hunger, self-criticism sessions, and several Potemkin-style communist paradoxes (e.g., the handmade vintage Mustang using a Lada chassis and Mercedes engine!), Johnson's imagination soars.   Yes, the story is dark (Dean), dystopian (Larry), and surreal (Peter), the narrative saunters (Stan), the "truthiness" quotient is high (thanks for that Colbert reference, Glenn), and there's more than a little misogyny (duly noted by Paul), but many of us thought Johnson did a superb job in grappling with our often conflicting notions of truth, identity, and the nature of power and relationships.  As Doug also noted, Johnson beautifully fictionalizes a society whose reality is already stranger than fiction.   For Terry and me and a couple others, The Orphan Master's Son landed at or near the top of the MBC booklist. 

Next Up
Peter challenged us with his offerings for next month.  With two (!) titles about racism and a failed criminal justice system, another about disease and mortality, and a fourth about Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, we shuddered and instead picked Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist.  A novel centered around the WTO protests in Seattle, YHMSF has landed on many recent Best Picks lists.  We'll see if it makes ours.