Morality transformed

The delight I felt while reading this book needs further interrogation, because its stories deal with troublesome subjects.

One of the things that delighted and confounded me about Adam John­son’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, was its strange combination of the real and the unreal. On the surface I appeared to be reading a realist novel about North Korea. But almost immediately, something in the language clued me in that this was also a dystopian fantasy along the lines of George Orwell. Propaganda and “real life” were twisted together into a rope to which readers were asked to cling. Johnson gave me some perception of what it might be like for the people of North Korea to live amidst such fiercely controlling messages from the Dear Leader, but the book also challenged my assumptions about how to read it.

Because we are so well trained in the literary mechanisms of realism, most readers use that as their reading strategy: they expect literary books to reflect the world as it is in crucial ways. Fiction plays against a backdrop of what we have agreed signifies real life. I said to a friend who was avidly defending the book’s realism against my sense that it was something else, “What about all of the kidnapping? If North Koreans were trawling the coast of Japan randomly kidnapping people, wouldn’t we know about it?” “I Googled it,” she said. “It’s true. North Korea is known for its kidnapping program.” She was right. I Googled it too. I also Googled how much time Adam Johnson had spent in North Korea and several other aspects of the book, trying to get my footing. I still don’t think it is a work of literary realism.

Most of the short stories in Johnson’s new collection play with the same wobbly sense of reality that so captivated and puzzled me in The Orphan Master’s Son. In the opening story, “Nirvana,” a woman is debilitated by a nerve disease. Her husband’s coping strategy is to invent a simulacrum of a dead president that he talks to about his dilemmas. The president answers him with clichés and politically infused aphorisms. I found my­self trying to map the story onto present-day political or social realities, but eventually I gave way to the story’s own interior truth. This is a story about two people, neither of them particularly wise or mature, who are forced to grapple with a disease as it reshapes their love for each other.