Pulitzer Prize, Fiction, 2013
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother - a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang - and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.
Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”
Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
From the Hardcover edition.
©2011 Adam Johnson (P)2011 Random House Audio
“An addictive novel of daring ingenuity, a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty, and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love - The Orphan Master’s Son is a brave and impressive book.” (David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet)
“I’ve never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master’s Son is a masterpiece.” (Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children)
“Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters, whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.” (Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone)
I have to disagree with Tim ??? quite strongly actually.
This story comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. Different characters give us their (incomplete) part of the story so the reader/listener is left to figure out what is actually happening. The Korean names and dialogue made my understanding slower but after listening to it a couple of times, I can???t stop thinking about it. I think Mr. Johnson did a brilliant job of telling a complicated story.
The level of human misery, cruelty and pathological ideas depicted makes North Korea, in my opinion, the leader in long list of notorious practitioners. History books as well as novels are not shy about adding imaginative ways to hurt people and/or animals but the NK regime certainly beats them all in that respect. It is so hard to believe it has gone on for so long.
If a North Korean slipped through Alice???s looking glass, he/she would no doubt feel right at home in Wonderland ,, well , if you add lots of cruelty.
The book is well written and the narration is spot on.
I've seen a million faces and I've rocked them all!
I purchased the Kindle version of this when it was published. I gave up after 75 pages, believing it too dark and foreign for me to care much about it.
Then, Adam Johnson was awarded the Pulitzer Price in Fiction for 2013 for this novel, and I exclaimed, Good Grief! I bought the audiobook version, had to start over and gave up again around the same point.
For whatever reason though, I repurchased the audiobook, pulled out the Kindle version and made one more stab. Not 10 pages after my stopping point, I became interested and then I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.
And, I cannot laud it highly enough to do it justice in my book. Excellent development of characters and subtext to perfectly place of the reader in another world and a wonderful story that seemed so real (based loosely on one that is). The representation of North Korean life and the dictatorship made the story all the more profound and effective. Consider, for example, the news within the past 6 months that the Kim Jong Un had 9 orchestra members executed to squash rumors that his wife, a singer, was "friendly" prior to marrying the Jong Un.
A quote in the book relating life in North Korea:
“I wonder of what you must daily endure in America, having no government to protect you, no one to tell you what to do. Is it true you're given no ration card, that you must find food for yourself? Is it true that you labor for no higher purpose than paper money? What is California, this place you come from? I have never seen a picture. What plays over the American loudspeakers, when is your curfew, what is taught at your child-rearing collectives? Where does a woman go with her children on Sunday afternoons, and if a woman loses her husband, how does she know the government will assign her a good replacement? With whom would she curry favor to ensure her children got the best Youth Troop leader?”
This novel has adventure, suspense, a great literary structure and even some romance:
“They’re about a woman whose beauty is like a rare flower. There is a man who has a great love for her, a love he’s been saving up for his entire life, and it doesn’t matter that he must make a great journey to her, and it doesn’t matter if their time together is brief, that afterward he might lose her, for she is the flower of his heart and nothing will keep him from her.”
I loved this book. The parts with Kim Jong-il gave me goosebumps and were scary funny.
This is the best book I've read/listened to in quite a few years. Sometimes perseverence pays, particularly in audiobooks. I probably wouldn't have finished this if I'd had to pick back up the book in print instead of just turning up the audio version on the way to and from work.
Lawyer, reader, writer, performer. Just love listening to books and talking about it!
Watch the PBS interview, then listen the book and wonder at the world Johnson created. He somehow went to North Korea and incorporated some of what he glimpsed. Although the country is a mystery to us, perhaps this book sheds light through the power of fiction.
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
The Orphan Master’s Son was fascinating and compelling. However, if you don't like graphic violence or the depiction of really depressing situations, then this book won't be for you. (I'm now reading a Stephen King book, and it seems like cotton candy compared to this.)
The structure of the book was interesting, even if a bit confusing. The first half was a twisted adventure story – picaresque, like Don Quixote where it moves from one adventure to the next. The second half was a love story, basically. The second half was really confusing for quite a while. It finally became clear that the story was really being told in three versions – Korean propaganda version, Ga version, and interrogator version. Also, it finally becomes clear that the interrogator character’s whole story line occurs AFTER the ending of the story of Ga and Sun Moon (trying not to give too much away about that ending.)
The characters were so well drawn. The growth and change of Commander Ga (Pak Jun Do) from beginning to end was very moving. In the beginning Ga’s name is Jun Do, and the author mentions how this is like John Doe, a nameless character. I presume he is telling us that Jun Do/Ga is like an Everyman character for North Korea. His various adventures demonstrate so much of what must be going on in North Korea.
Ga’s change at the end represents a hope for lifting North Korea out of the dark ages. I had no idea that North Korea was THAT horrible before reading this book. Shame on me, but it’s true. I credit Adam Johnson for bringing this horror to the eyes of many readers who, like myself, were unaware. Change could result from this exposure; one can only hope.
I found many parts of the book to be extremely disturbing – perhaps more disturbing than any other book I’ve read. The worst parts were those narrated by the interrogator character and having to do with the extreme torture. The depth of horror in the North Korean society seemed to be most represented by him. When he described his parents and it became obvious that even they were afraid of him it was done so chillingly. And when he goes through a change toward the end, well, I suppose that is part of the “redemption” in the book, if you could call it that.
I felt the book was too long. I’m not sure where I’d cut it, but perhaps some of Commander Ga’s various transformations could have been left out or shortened. Another possibility would be to somehow leave out some of the torture scenes which were so graphic and disturbing.
If you've read Escape from Camp 14 you have a good idea what North Korean prisons are like. North Korean life outside its prisons does not appear to be much better. I found this book difficult to comprehend at times. I questioned why the author devoted so much time to particular individuals, or why he chose a particular sequence of events to weave the story together. In the end it didn't matter. The point was clear, the story was disturbing and the inhuman manipulation that is North Korea was stunningly revealed. The book is a work of art. It is impressive. You just have to be prepared for a nasty ride.
I could not stop listening to this book. I wouldn't have been interested in reading it if it hadn't been for the recent news reports about North Korea after the death of the "dear leader". When you hear about starvation, work camps, and the supreme rule of one man over an entire people, it is difficult to imagine what that really means. This book brings it to life. It was difficult to listen to at several points, so be prepared, but it was worth it.
I recently visited South Korea - I'm glad I didn't go to the DMZ.
Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Adam Johnson set the bar high for himself in writing a novel set in a country hidden behind a wall of totalitarianism and rumor. But I thought that the Orphan Master’s Son rose to the challenge and deserves its hype. Johnson seems to accept that he can’t fill in all the details of a place largely blacked out to American eyes, so he relies on a light touch and a writer’s sense of lyricism to impart truth through story and character, rather than facts alone. The real North Korea is simply a jumping off point into Big Brother dystopia as an idea.
Because what defines life in such places, as Johnson seems to see it, are not facts or people, but narratives. And, here, all narratives are subsumed and rewritten by an all-pervading, state-created fiction. If the state decides that a citizen is to have have a new job, name, husband, or identity, then the citizen does. If the state finds that a citizen’s existence no longer fits the official narrative, the citizen ceases to be. Yet, the state's power contains a flaw: sometimes the narratives it creates for its citizens give them just a little power to resist it.
Enter Pak Jun Do, a non-orphan who, by various turns of events, becomes recast as an orphan, then as a tunnel soldier trained to fight in the darkness, then as a kidnapper, then as an intelligence officer installed on a fishing boat, then as an agent sent on an absurd mission to Texas. Initially an anonymous, dutiful North Korean subject, opaque to the reader, Jun Do gradually becomes someone, both in terms of his official status and his own inner life. Until, suddenly, we are introduced to another viewpoint on all that’s taken place. At that point, the plot becomes non-linear and a little meta, but it kept me guessing and I never had trouble making sense of what happens. Of course, there’s a love story that comes into play, through a strange twist of fate and a daring act of defiance.
What lifts this book above the ordinary is Johnson’s skill at enlisting small details and images and making them resonate through the story. The tattoos of their wives that fisherman put on their chests, fragmentary artifacts that drift in from the outside world (on the ocean or through radio), human connections to plants and animals, the use of martyrs names for orphans, the outlandish self-parodying pronouncements of state propaganda broadcasts -- all acquire a meaning beyond themselves. He also shows us human beings being complicated, with all the fear, absurdity, poignancy, boredom, rationalization, darkness, and hope that attends life in an oppressive place. We see how an idealistic state interrogator might compartmentalize his work life and his personal one, his ambitions and his own fears. Or the layers of deception navigated by a character trying to manipulate the deluded, yet shrewd Dear Leader, who is running his own manipulation of the same character. Or how a wary trophy wife, freer than most, but far from free, might respond to being issued a "replacement husband" at the pleasure of Kim Jong Il. I can see why David Mitchell (a favorite writer of mine) made a point of praising this book. It's just as about using a postmodern lens to view the world as his own works are.
On the subject of postmodernism, the book does have a few weakness. The different substories are a little awkwardly joined. The use of the aforementioned propaganda broadcasts to tell part of the story is a clever device, but gets a little exhausting later in the book. Also, a number of the scenes involving Americans come across as a little forced. Much of the problem, I think, was that any scene in which the Yankees talk yanked me right out of Jun Do's mind -- he couldn't have understood them as I did. Readers who prefer strict realism over literary creation might be frustrated with aspects of the story.
I was glad Johnson took the dare, though. If it has its rough spots, The Orphan Master's Son is still a stunning accomplishment, and I'm looking forward to seeing where else he might go in his career.
The audiobook narrators do a fine job, capturing (among other voices) the interrogator’s youthful sense of mission, the stern, moralizing tone of the broadcasts, and the creepy, vapid jocularity of Kim Jong Il.
Eric Raymond is the author of "Confessions from a Dark Wood" published by Sator Press, 2012. He lives in San Francisco.
This is probably the finest audio book I've ever listened to, and it the novel earns every bit of the hype surrounding it. The stunning imagination, the bejeweled detail, the immaculate voicing and structure of this novel makes it one of the best books I've read in the past ten years. You will find it horrific and entertaining in equal measure, and no piece of fiction has worked so hard to counter totalitarian terror without being dogmatic.
I hear voices. But maybe that's because there's always an Audible book in my ear.
Sometimes you read a Pulitzer Prize winner, and shake your head in disbelief. This time I knew exactly why this book won. It deserves all of the praise it can get.
This book is SO real. I'm unsure of its accuracy, but I certainly felt like I had a glimpse of the Glorious Democratic People's Republic of Korea through the character's eyes. It's so rare when I actually can suspend reality and feel something on behalf of a character. In this book it happened subtly. I had a visceral reaction to an event before I realized how immersed I was in the characters and their lives. I started to grimace every time I heard "glorious" or "Citizens!" or "Supreme Leader."
Adam Johnson has done a fine job of using fiction to paint a picture of life inside one of the most closed societies on earth. He allowed me to understand it in a way that wouldn't have been possible otherwise.
The narration is perfectly suited to the book. It's not completely transparent, but gives you a very good sense of where you are and who is talking. I think it's precisely what a good narration should do - especially in a book like this with abhorrent content. I had enough of a reaction. I didn't need any overblown narration to help that along.
No, I was sorry that I spent time on this melodrama. I am not a big fan of melodrama, but kept thinking there would surely be something more than what was so predictable.
The narrators did do a great job with depicting the different characters. Can't fault them for what they had to read.
No. No spoiler from me, but I don't think there is anything left to say.
I have read a lot about the awful situation in North Korea, and I am not averse to reading a novelized version. But this one went over the top, creating its own version of a propaganda script. If that was Johnson's intent, he succeeded, but I found myself increasingly bored with the idealized caricatures of his "good" characters.
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