Friday, January 6, 2012

We are the Stories We Tell, North Korean Style (A Post About The Orphan Master's Son Event is 1/23).

I told you we had several major events scheduled for January. In our Boswellian trip around the world, we touch down in North Korea with Adam Johnson. The book lands next Tuesday. Here we go!

Every book we read is implicitly about storytelling.
Sometimes the story is straightforward--a history, a chase, a great love affair. And though some stories do not make themselves apparent as well as others, it seems like the ones that do are also most appropriate in book form. Those that are more fractured, like dictionaries and used car guides, seem now better suited for other structures.

Sometimes the storytelling aspect of a book is more explicit. I was recently chatting with a customer about Mary Helen Stefaniak's recently-in-paperback novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, noting that the novel blends a traditional Southern storytelling novel with a traditional Middle Eastern one, sort of like The Help meets Tales of the Arabian Nights. And then there is Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad, which uses the structure of the stories to play on the plot, character and themes of the novel.

Cultural identity is all about storytelling too, and sometimes a novel reflects that. But note that in many countries, the story is about the country's leader, and in North Korea, that leader has woven quite the story. The problem for readers is that there are very few stories that make it out of that country and into our novels and memoirs. My former colleague Jane and I used to discuss this all the time when looking for book club picks; where is the story that sheds light on the North Korean experience, the way writers have mined Vietnam and China and Cuba and the Balkan nations? When you search North Korea on the Ingram (one of our wholesalers) database and select fiction, only 16 titles appear. One of them, Jia, written by Hyejin Kim, was in fact on one season of our book club selections. Nice going, Cleis Press!

But all this changed when I read The Orphan Master's Son, a tour-de-force novel set inside North Korea. Pak Jun Do is a low-level operative, charged with kidnapping Japanese and South Korean folks for intelligence tasks. But a chain of events leads to him impersonating Commander Ga, in charge of the prison mines and married to the beloved actress Sun Moon. Like many novels I love, the story is told from several perspectives--from Jun Do/Ga, from his interrogator, and from the official loudspeaker chronicling the Best North Korean story of the year.

But Adam Johnson plays with the storytelling narrative by subverting the idea of genre altogether. As Richard Powers notes in a conversation chronicled in the advance copy, Johnson collides "bildungsroman, prison narrative, sea story, romantic drama, escape thriller, comic picaresque, and heroic opera", not to mention social realist drama and a wee bit of satire.

Per Johnson, in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (or DPRK, for short), you are your story, or more interestingly, the story is you. If everyone is starving but the government says you live in a land of plenty, you are in the land of plenty. If the retired folks are respected and are sent off to a wonderful retirement resort where they sip drinks while lounging at the beach, that is the case, even if they were more likely shipped off to prison mines.

In a sense, they are all Sun Moon, actors and actresses living a part that calls for duty above all. If you are, say, the wife of the head of a farm collective and your husband is wonderful but not meeting the collective quota, what do you do if your husband is burned beyond recognition on a mission and when he returns he is an ogre and possibly not even the same person, but runs the collective better? In North Korea, it wouldn't even be an issue, but it might be the plot of a popular film, possibly written by Kim Jong Il himself.

The no-name interrogator, writing the stories of the doomed, and then administering the Autopilot (it was said to be more effective than lobotomies), is in some sense the most brutal and yet sympathetic of the characters. He cares for his blind, aging parents in a high rise without a working elevator (so that they don't escape). He's insistent on doing things this new-fangled way, as opposed to the old-fashioned torture/killing of the Pubyok. Despite having a decent job, he never knows when he'll be swept up to do some harvesting in the fields. (Yes, even the ice cream truck is a ruse to catch children for hard labor).

And his parents cower in the apartment, panicked about American attacks, listening to the official loudspeaker, which yes, pipes into the apartment. His parents always give every indication that they believe everything on the loudspeaker as the truth. Because when it comes to these swiftly-changing stories, trust becomes something truly rare. As in many regimes of this sort, anyone can turn on you: your neighbor, your friend, your student, your child, or yes, your parent. Someone who might say, "I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the state." But then there is this memory of something once said by his father:

"See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect the two of you,  know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it's not really you.  That's inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands."

Oh, that left me a little shaken, and so did The Orphan Master's Son. What a novel! It's not anything you've read before but if you're a reader who's excited by innovation...Richard Powers or David Mitchell or William T. Vollman or...well anyone who is writing at the forefront of fiction, playing with character and structure and plot and language, but turns the whole, not into a mishmash, but a towering achievement. (Is that too over the top? Should I find some women writers to compare him to? I'll work on that.)

I'm so excited (did you notice?) to say that we are hosting Adam Johnson on Monday, January 23, 7 pm. Come to see a novelist who will likely get numerous accolades in 2012. Or just come to hear the story of someone who actually went to North Korea to do research. Either way, it should be an event you won't forget.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

You said it all so perfectly! This is one of my favorite books of recent years.