Stop the presses! Orphan Master’s Son author Adam Johnson gets Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!


Pulitzer”What should I say?  What should I say?” asked Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son when we cornered him in Moscow, Idaho, to ask him about his spanking new John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship.  So we won’t try to find him now that he’s just won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his (very timely) novel about life in North Korea.  For one thing, we’d have to get in a queue to find him.

Nonetheless, it’s cheering, stop-the-presses news.  Let us add our congratulations, and quote the New York Times‘ Michiko Kakutani, who called The Orphan Master’s Son a “daring and remarkable novel” (whole thing is here):

Set in the recent past, when the country’s eccentric strongman Kim Jong-il (who died in December) still ruled with an iron whim, the novel conjures an Orwellian world in which the government’s myths about the country — its success, its benevolence, its virtues in taking on the evils perpetrated by the United States, South Korea and Japan — are not only tirelessly drilled into the citizenry through propaganda broadcasts but have also become an overarching narrative framing everyone’s lives. As Jun Do learns, people’s identities are subordinate to the roles the state expects them to fulfill, and even words or acts that inadvertently cast doubt on the greatness and goodness of the government can lead to death or prison or torture.

“Where we are from,” says one character, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

In doing research, Mr. Johnson read firsthand testimony from defectors and traveled to North Korea himself; he then used his sharp sense of the absurd and adrenalin-laced language — the same gifts on display in Emporium, his 2002 collection of short stories — to transform that research into an operatic if somewhat long-winded tale that is at once satiric and melancholy, blackly comic and sadly elegiac.

Author, author! (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Can the Nobel be far behind? (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

In both Emporium (set largely in America) and The Orphan Master’s Son there is a heightened apprehension of the precariousness of life, the randomness of fate, the difficulty of emotional connection. Because the hardships of real life in North Korea, described by defectors, can be Kafkaesque in their surreal horror, it’s harder to tell in these pages where Mr. Johnson’s penchant for exaggeration leaves off.

Like many works of fiction to emerge from troubled or repressive parts of the world, The Orphan Master’s Son employs the techniques of magical realism to create a hallucinatory mirror of day-to-day circumstances that in themselves dwarf the imagination. The real-life Kim Jong-il, after all, was often described in terms befitting a comic-book villain: known as “Dear Leader” in North Korea, this dictator, who wore elevator shoes and oversize sunglasses, allowed untold numbers of people to die of starvation during recurrent famines while pumping huge sums of money into the country’s nuclear programs; he banished citizens deemed disloyal to prison camps and sent assassins after defectors.

Or you could read what we’ve written about him here and here and here and here, among other places.  Meanwhile, we’ll await the announcement of a Nobel in October.

Update: The Los Angeles Times announces Adam’s honor here, and Abebooks celebrates Adam’s win here

2 Responses to “Stop the presses! Orphan Master’s Son author Adam Johnson gets Pulitzer Prize for Fiction!”

  1. Beth OC Says:

    Just finished the book. A very good tale. As a pampered US citizen it was difficult to accept that many of the events are factual. I am more grateful for my freedoms after reading this book. Thank you

  2. On The Orphan Master’s Son | Not the Family Business! Says:

    […] a few during this trip. On the plane, I chose to start with The Orphan Master’s Son an Adam Johnson novel that came highly recommended. It wasn’t until I downloaded it from Amazon that I […]