I wrote about Adam Johnson in 2009, when he said that, for the last four-and-a-half years (he was careful not to say five), he had been working on a novel about North Korea, in which he will “explore ways people manage to be individual under that regime.”
Noting American value for “free-thinking, spontaneity, ingenuity, individuality,” he added, “Over there, spontaneity can ruin your life.” Nonetheless, the novel invites an examination of the propaganda Americans accept on this side of the Pacific.
Frankly, it didn’t sound as exciting as some of his other work, which had led the Chicago Tribune to claim: “Like a squall moving in on a dead-muggy day, Adam Johnson’s audacious work blows the covers off the short story and leaves the genre newly invigorated.”
I was wrong. His new book, The Orphan Master’s Son, might be his best ever. According to a story in the Los Angeles Times today:
Like many Westerners, Johnson initially saw Kim Jong Il as a kind of comic-opera figure and Korea’s Cold War-vintage society as a potential wellspring of satiric material. “I must admit that at the beginning the absurdities and the ironies attracted me,” Johnson said …
Several years ago, he started writing a short story inspired partly by Kim Jong Il’s extravagant eccentricity, “his jet skis and his sushi habit, and he has a whole division of girls to pleasure him.” But that Comedy Central scenario changed as the author began to grasp the Orwellian dimensions of the regime’s power and the hopelessness and fear that pervade its citizens’ lives.
“It’s not just the Kim Jong Il bouffant hairdo,” said Johnson … “When I sit down and talk to people about what I discovered about that place … people are horrified about the gulags and the starvation and things like that.” …
“The more dark realities started inhabiting me, and the more I started dreaming about these places, the more really frivolous a lot of my original interests seemed,” Johnson said. “I know it really sounds cheesy, but I did feel a duty to try to tell the stories of people who couldn’t speak for themselves.”
Reading online translations of North Korea’s government-run paper Rodong Sinmun, Johnson said he came to see that in North Korea there is only one central character, Kim Jong Il, and before that his father, Kim Il Sung, “and then there are 23 million secondary characters.”
Given the dark and quirky nature of his stories, Johnson is not what one would expect. The inevitable first impression is massiveness – he’s an imposing 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds. But the former construction worker is also urbane, affable, mild-mannered.
Relaxing over his laptop and an iced coffee at the Stanford Bookstore café, Johnson reflects on what distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries: “I’m a maximalist,” he said contentedly. …
Clearly, Johnson is not afraid to whack his readers upside the head: “Why not have a spaceship come into the story? Why not?” To retell an age-old father-son story, Johnson suggested, “put them on an orbiting space station.” Or, better yet, tell the story through two raccoons, he said.