Pulitzer prizewinning Adam Johnson (The Orphan Master’s Son) is “feeling the love in Croatia.” This photo, with his kidlets, was taken by his wife Stephanie Harrell. Clearly, there’s a lot of talent for photography in the family – we’ve already posted daughter Jupiter‘s photo here. Earlier this month, Adam was fiction winner of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a celebration that awarded author Tim O’Brien as well. Adam is currently on an around-the-world gig promoting his surreal novel about the twisted lives in today’s North Korea – we’ve written about it here and here and here. Today’s photo and Adam’s book are timely in a more chilling way: we’ve just learned that Merrill Newman of Palo Alto, the 85-year-old Stanford alum and Korea vet, has been arrested and detained while visiting North Korea as a tourist. According to his Newman’s son, “The basic fact of the matter is that this gentleman is 84-85 yrs old, an elderly man, presumably not a threat in any way to North Korea, so this is, even by North Korean standards, an extraordinary thing.”
Stanford prez John Hennessy is famously techie, right? Here’s the surprise: the former computer scientist also likes ploughing through the big-hearted, super-retro, thousand-page classics of the 19th century. “I like sagas, a big story plus decades,” he confessed to a good-sized crowd at Piggott Hall last week during an exuberant, free-wheeling talk on “Why I Read Great Literature.” You know the books he means: the kind that gets turned into a year’s worth of BBC Masterpiece Theatre viewing.
He’s clearly a man after my own heart – he singled out Victor Hugo‘s Les Miserables for particular praise, saying that he’s read the whole shebang several times. This is comforting to me personally, after watching René Girard, that anti-romantic sage and immortel, politely squelch a smirk when I told him of my childhood adoration of the book.
For Hennessy, an apparent turning point in his reading tastes occurred the summer before he entered high school – an over-the-vacation reading assignment that somewhat parallels Stanford’s Three Books program. Clearly one of the books took hold of his imagination: he’s read Charles Dickens‘s A Tale of Two Cities several times since. And although he wasn’t up to reciting the magnificent 118-word opening sentence last week, he did refer to it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
How many books are enclosed by an immortal first and last sentence? Hennessy had better luck reciting the the famous close: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Dickens “has proven enough times that I could read anything he writes,” said Hennessy. “He grapples with Victorian England, social injustices, a system that obviously tramples on people.” As for nasty schoolmaster Squeers, in Nicholas Nickleby: “If I ever met him, I would be forced to shoot him,” said Hennessy. These books ask, he said, “How would I have approached that situation? What would I have done?” Now we know. Hennessy would be compelled to commit homicide. Fortunately, fortunately, Squeers must have died in Australia at least a century ago, presumably of natural causes.
Hennessy’s love for Dickens includes the worthy chestnut A Christmas Carol, which he rereads during the holiday season. As for David Copperfield, he gleefully quoted Mr. McCawber; apparently it’s one of his favorite lines: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Well, that’s the techie in him. Throughout the talk he kept presenting numbered lists of thoughts – he likes counting. I always wonder how you know that, when you say you have five points to make, it’s going to stay five points, and not meander into seven. Or you’ll forget one and have only four left. He seems to be good at keeping track.
Like many a young ‘un, he was frogmarched to the great classics. Some books are not wise choices for teenage boys – Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for example. “I wasn’t up to it. It was too deep, too much angst to it. High school angst is different.”
“An author I was tortured by in high school was Edith Wharton,” he recalled pensively. The inevitable high-school staple, Ethan Frome – it’s mercifully short, after all – was “not the right book for high school guys.” What kid wants to read a tragic story of wasted lives? They say love is much better the second time around – so it seems with these reheated feasts. He’s warmed to Henry James, too, despite a premature exposure to “Turn of the Screw.”
I couldn’t agree more with his overall point, but I think the first exposure, however flawed, is important. I’ve just rediscovered Stendhal in a big way after reading it in high school and finding it a little too cold-edged and cynical for my delicate teenage sensibilities. It didn’t help that the class was reading it, for the most part, in French (we all cheated and found translations, of course – I now find it amusing that we thought Mademoiselle Vance didn’t expect us to do this). René Girard definitely approves of this late-life conversion to Stendhal. I’ll have to have another go at Rabelais now, too. These classics, reread at ten-year intervals, resonate within us at different layers of experience, but you do need a prime coat.
Hennessy’s passion is not restricted to Golden Oldies, or reheated feasts from early class assignments – he included some more recent fare in his endless list. “Sometimes fiction is better at telling a story than non-fiction,” he said, citing this year’s Pulitzer prizewinning book, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (we’ve written about it here and here and here and, oh, lots of other places). He also cited Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things and Aravind Adiga‘s White Tiger, which helped prepare him for trips to India a few years ago. Where does he get the time? Clearly, he doesn’t watch TV – I wrote about that here.
Sepp Gumbrecht, author of In Praise of Athletic Beauty, offered what he called “the biggest compliment” to Hennessy: “I did not anticipate half an hour when I would not think about football.” He praised Hennessy for taking a firm departure from clever literary theory and speaking with “unbridled and deliberately naïve enthusiasm” about books. He noted the words and phrases Hennessy used most frequently in his talk (apparently, he was counting, too, which would certainly keep his mind off football): 1) redemption, redeeming; 2) tragedy, justice; 3) sacrifice, vengeance. It doesn’t get better than this, does it?
And what does he read at the end of the day, before bedtime? “Junk,” he said. Just like the rest of us.
He escaped by a side door during the refreshments – but not before George Brown and I pleaded with him to reconsider the Purgatorio, the only book in the Divine Comedy where time counts for something – which it did for Hennessy, too, clearly, as he rushed to his next appointment.
(Photo above has a gaggle of professors – the contemplative head-on-hand at far right belongs to Josh Landy. Next to him with the snowy beard is Grisha Freidin. The ponytail at his right belongs to Gabriella Safran. Next to her (if you leap an aisle) is David Palumbo-Liu in black glasses, and the half-head to his right belongs to Sepp. Humble Moi at far left with the black Mary Janes. Many thanks for the excellent photography from Linda Cicero, which has often graced this site.)
I don’t usually read Esquire, but I spent some time browsing its website last night. Here’s why: Adam Johnson, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize, has a short story, “Nirvana,” in this month’s issue. (I’ve written about Adam and his Orphan Master’s Son here and here and here and here, among other places). His newest story is about love, death, drones, hashboards from Bangalore, and a cyberspace resurrection of a dead president that’s been downloaded 14 million times – and it all takes place on “a normal Palo Alto night—the hiss of sprinklers, blue recycling bins, a raccoon digging in the community garden.”
The protagonist’s wife has Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition that leaves her paralyzed from the neck down. The couple live “at the edge of the medical literature.” He talks to a dead president, she listens to Nirvana, “whose songs are all from a guy who blew his brains out.” The rest twines the real and the unreal, the transhuman and the poignantly human.
It’s late, and I can’t sleep.
I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the President because we often talk in whispers. I know the whisper sound is really just my wife, Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.
Yes, hearing the President whisper is creepy because he’s been dead now, what—three months? But even creepier is what happens when I close my eyes: I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though good luck trying to convince Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the bedsores, and there was something about the way she stared at the safety rail at the edge of the mattress. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds. And then there’s the way she stares at the looping cable that descends from the Hoyer lift, which swings her in and out of bed.
What can really keep a guy up at night is the knowledge that she doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from you to help her do it when the time comes.
I rise and go to her, but she’s not listening to Nirvana yet—she tends to save it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.
“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.”
Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.
“I heard it, too,” she says.
It was a big weekend in the Big Apple for one San Franciscan. Adam Johnson, the newest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, accepted his award from Lee Bolinger, President of Columbia University, at a May 30 luncheon. (We’ve written about Adam’s most recent honors this year, the Pulitzer and Guggenheim, here and here.)
Clearly talent runs in the family. The photo above was taken by his 9-year-old daughter Jupiter Johnson. The pretty prize is pictured below. I’d never seen the sparkly bauble before.
The day before, the San Francisco Weekly ran a Q&A with the author of The Orphan Master’s Son (we’ve written about the book here and here and here), and admitted it was smitten by the 6’4 linebacker-sized author. A sample from his comments about North Korea: ”This is a nation without any voice at all. It’s unthinkable. We have no evidence of a literary underground. No book or poem has made it out in 60 years. As I wrote the book, I thought, who am I to write this? But the truth is, they can’t write, they can’t express themselves, and until they can, we need to do this. We won’t know if it’s true until they can tell their own story.”
Speaking of Jupiter, the interview has an interesting admission about his work habits: “I can’t write with the Internet, so I go to the UCSF library as a guest; I get more work done there. When I’m home and I hear my three kids’ voices outside the door, all under 10, I think, why am I spending time with imaginary people?”
The foundation awarded a diverse group of 175 scholars, artists, and scientists, chosen on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, from a field of almost 3,000 applicants this year.
I phoned Adam to offer my congratulations, and caught him just as he was about to go into a class where he is a guest speaker in Moscow, Idaho. Did he have any words to offer Book Haven readers? ”What should I say? What should I say?” he asked me. Heavens, how should we know? We’ve never gotten a Guggenheim.
“I’m thrilled, honored. I have received the most precious gift a writer can have – time to complete the next project, and to fulfill the potential of the work,” he finally said.
So what’s this next project? ”What? I can’t say,” he said. But surely it was in the Guggenheim proposal, so it’s not a secret? He hemmed and hawed a bit – let’s just call it ”narratives of North Korea,” he said.
Any comments on the latest standoff with North Korea? He asked me if I’d seen the New York Times article explaining that the renegade nation has most probably learned how to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile, and is “missile ready.” What did he think about it? “I’m not a nuclear expert, I write about people,” he said, before ducking into the classroom. We called out “Congratulations, Adam!” after him.
Update! North Korea celebrates Adam’s award with a funky get down Juche Party!
When interviewing author Adam Johnson, one always leaves with one’s notebook full of great stories and great quotes that didn’t make it to the final cut – this was true even before he wrote the celebrated Orphan Master’s Son, “a place where living meaningfully and survival are at odds constantly – and as a literary fiction writer, I was completely drawn to that territory.” (I’ve written about him here and here and here and here.)
While talking to him about his newest novel in his home in the Cole Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, he recalled his sole, and heavily chaperoned, trip to Pyongyang. He was so floored by the disconnect with reality, that he asked his young female chaperone, “You know, I think my next trip is going to be to either Mogadishu or Paris. What do you think?”
She looked at him blankly. ”It depends on what your travel plans are,” she replied.
“She didn’t ask, ‘Do you like cheese?’ ‘Can you handle an AK-47?’” It was apparent that Mogadishu and Paris were no more than dots on a map, absolutely free of associations.
You’ll get your own chance to hear of his North Korean adventures in the New York Times today here, as he reflects on the new Google maps of the mysterious totalitarian state. As he explains, during his visit, the only guide he could find at the time wore red lipstick:
My minder was smart and appraising, with something regal about her. And driving around Pyongyang, I couldn’t stop pestering her with questions:
“I don’t see any trash cans,” I said. “Where are the trash cans?”
We’re a society without waste, she said.
We have the world’s most efficient mail system was her answer.
I hadn’t seen a fire station. “Where do you keep your fire trucks?” I asked her.
We haven’t had a fire in the capital in 12 years.
Later, when I finally popped the big question — “Oh, can we stop someplace that sells maps?” — she swept her hand to include the driver, the state-supplied videographer and her assistant, and said: We are your map. We’re all you need to find your way.
North Korea, he said, is a place where “everyone there makes an impossible choice to survive.”
Then he wondered, “Does your soul, if you don’t exercise it, just crumple up like a tin can inside of you, unable to find its form again?”
U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey was at Stanford last night – alas, I had a conflicting appointment. But Adam Johnson, author of the acclaimed The Orphan Master’s Son, attended, and sent me his glorious portrait as a souvenir of the occasion. And that is the excuse for this post.
Adam had this to say about the reading I didn’t attend: “The reading was a truly commanding one. The poetry was powerful and beautiful, and the audience felt its embrace. Rarely do you see a poet so fully or eloquently embody her work as Natasha Trethewey did at the lectern tonight.” (Adam was no slouch at his own reading tonight – more on that in another post.)
In his citation for the poet laureate appointment, Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote that he was “immediately struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it.” Rita Dove wrote in an introduction to one of Tretheway’s books that she “eschews the Polaroid instant … reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength.”
Tretheway is the author of Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press), Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin), for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002), which was named a Notable Book for 2003 by the American Library Association, and Domestic Work (Graywolf, 2000).
Her collection Thrall is due for publication in 2012 – but it better hurry up, only seven weeks left in the year. My goodness, where did it go?
Postscript on 11/7: Whoops! Christina Ablaza just wrote to tell me that Thrall came out in August.
One of the more haunting moments in author Adam Johnson‘s interview with Charlie Rose is when he describes the impossibility of the plight of North Koreans – these are “people who have never seen a stop light before; they don’t know how many works,” says the author of the acclaimed Orphan Master’s Son. As he has pointed out elsewhere, most of the stories we have are from the areas outside the capital. The citizens of Pyongyang have already “made it.” So what is life like among North Korea’s upper classes?
“The cadres of the past had very traditional mentalities. They are people who lived thinking, “Anything for the party and the General…” The cadres, with the change in generations, started to think about their security. Corruption and self-interest stemmed from that.
In actuality, the North Korean cadres are the first ones to have changed internally. On the outside, they maintain their security by serving the regime, but internally, they will be the first ones to abandon it if the circumstances permit.”
These are the observations of Kim Jong Il‘s favorite state poet, Jang Jin Sung, who defected in 2004. He will be attending an international poetry festival during the upcoming London Olympics, from July 27 to Aug. 12 (Kay Ryan will also attend). The man who once wrote official poetry for the Workers’ Party newspaper now writes about executions, hunger, and desperate lives, according to an Associated Press article. In a Daily NK interview four years ago, he said:
North Korea is a country which allowed 3 million people to die during a peacetime period. The fact that the administration still exists is a shameful thing. North Korea is a country which calls the period which produced 3,000,000 starvation victims the “March of Tribulation.” If Hitler was a despot who massacred foreign citizens, Kim Jong Il is a despot who has slaughtered his own people. If this truth is not made known, we cannot find justice.
Jang said he led a privileged life in Pyongyang and once dined with Kim. He was instructed to avoid looking into the leader’s eyes and instead to stare at his second shirt button. After more contact with Kim, Jang said he soon stopped believing that he was “this godlike leader of this wonderful country.”
He said that poets had a special role to play in the regime: ”Because of the paper shortage in North Korea, poems were the most efficient, economical way to spread propaganda,” he said.
While working in the propaganda ministry, he was able to read South Korean books. He crossed the river to China. Although he was hunted by the North Korea, South Korea found him first (needless to say, he now works under an assumed name). He worked for the South Korean intelligence for seven years before setting up his own online newspaper about North Korea earlier this year. Now he says “Truth is the strongest weapon.”
A few of the poet’s poems are shown in the video below – but only in Korean. The soundtrack has a lovely rendition of Handel‘s immortal cry for liberty, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga,” sung by South Korean singer Jung Se Hoon. Lovely, that is, till the end – I don’t know why they felt the need to junk up the orchestration at the end. (Go here for Cecilia Bartoli‘s interpretation.)
More praise for Adam Johnson‘s The Orphan Master’s Son, which we wrote about here and here and here and here. This time the kudos are from Kelly Falconer, the literary editor of the Asia Literary Review. She is also a former Korean linguist who served in the U.S. military as a Korean cryptologic analyst. The review is in the June 15 Times Literary Supplement, which landed in my Stanford mailbox today.
Most of the review recounts the storyline of the shapeshifting hero, Jun Do. Falconer concludes:
In Korean, jun do is a homonym and Jun Do himself embodies all of its various meanings, including topsy-turviness, as befits Alice in Wonderland absurdity of life in North Korea; a transmitter, of images and the truth, revealed with the “simplest answer”; a leader, unwittingly or not; inversion, as he takes on the identity of Commander Ga and also changes Ga into someone who is good; an advance on payment and someone who will have great difficulties, for Jun Do is fated to pay in advance for something he will gain later – freedom.
Adam Johnson … visited North Korea in 2007 as part of his research for the book, which is infused with subtly elided allusions both biblical and literary. But he is never high-handed; instead, his assured sense of playfulness tricks readers into letting down their guard and unexpectedly taking in the most shocking details that increase the intensity of the tale. Johnson’s deft hand gives us an accomplished, strangely entertaining and thoughtful insight into the oppressive, brutal and otherwise opaque regime in North Korea, where to see is not always to believe.
It’s always a pleasure to repeat any praise of Adam. He is a warm and quirky and wonderful man.