Monday, January 16, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors - wherever your loudspeaker is located, turn up the volume!

I don't know if the timing on the release of The Orphan Master's Son (January 10) is positive or negative in light of the recent death of North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. Are we sick of hearing about the Dear Leader at this point, after being inundated for weeks from every news source in the Western hemisphere? Has the world moved on, ready to see what madness "Brilliant Comrade" Kim Jong-un will unleash?

I say, embrace the crazy of the DPRK's pater familias, at least for a little while longer - as Adam Johnson highlights in his new novel, you have no idea how bad it really is.

Johnson has said (in an interview with Richard Powers) that he set out, originally, writing a humorous short story about Kim Jong-il and his reported shenanigans in North Korea. (Tentatively titled, "The Best North Korean Short Story of 2005.") While researching for this "'official' short story of North Korea," he began reading testimonials from gulag survivors and defectors that forced him to change his tack.
As I read defectors' oral histories, each one of them more heartbreaking than the last, a sense of duty filled me. I abandoned all the true-but-loony material about the Dear Leader, which though real, made the work too farcical; instead, I decided to tell the story of a single average citizen who came of age during the famine.
The resultant novel is by no means farcical - or humorous, or hilarious, or comedic. It exposes North Korea to be all that we Westerners worry about - a fear state run by an egomaniacal madman with no system of checks and balances in place. It is merely a playground for the Dear Leader wherein everyone needs to play by his rules, around the clock, for fear of being sent to a prison camp or sentenced to death for speaking out of turn or failing to perform the expected duties of a proud citizen.

Raised in the Long Tomorrows orphanage, Pak Jun Do believes himself to be the son of the Orphan Master, rather than a common castoff - why else would he be singled out for extra punishments all his life? (This is just the first of many ingenious, subtle falsities within that twist and re-form the storyline in the hands of its characters.) In the wake of a massive national famine, Jun Do joins the army at age 14, becoming a tunnel soldier in the ongoing battle with the South over the DMZ. After 8 years of this, he is brought out of the darkness & conscripted to perform clandestine kidnappings of Japanese citizens for the State. Then, just as mysteriously, the kidnappings come to an end, Jun Do is taught English, and he is sent out to sea on a fishing boat where he listens to intercepted American radio transmissions. 

It's best not to question the workings of the North Korean state, so just go with the flow here.

From there, Jun Do is sent to Texas, of all places, as part of a mysterious diplomatic mission - which goes horribly, predictably wrong, mostly due to the duplicitous nature of the Korean delegation, such as they are. Regardless, for his part in the failed mission, Jun Do is sent to languish in a prison mine for the rest of his days. It is at this point that the narration gets tilted on its axis and becomes something else entirely. 

Believe it or not, this describes merely the first third of The Orphan Master's Son - a sprawling, multi-layered exposé of life behind the walls of one of the world's most guarded nations. Wait, there's more. At some point, while in prison, Jun Do assumes the identity of one Commander Ga - a revered national hero & a fearsome rival to Kim Jong-il himself.
"He was the winner of the Golden Belt in taekwondo. They said he rid the military of homosexuals."
As Commander Ga, Jun Do's story becomes a fiction within the fiction - one of false identities, deceits, and negotiating the labyrinthine corridors of Kim Jong-il's government. Jun manages to escape prison as Ga - and even though no one truly believes that he is actually the Commander, he inserts himself into Ga's life, moving in with his famous actress wife, Sun Moon (whom Jun Do has another connection to) and living Ga's life as if it were his own. This is all about survival, in the end, whether for himself or for those he cares for - the goal, all along, is to depart from the horrors of his homeland, one way or another. In one of the more ingenious narrative twists, in between the unfurling of "Ga's" story, we are given State propaganda broadcasts which counter & romanticize what we know has actually occurred. A fiction within the fiction, as it were - lies told about the liar.

As complicated as this all sounds, Johnson eases you into every element of it - laying every evolution out as plainly as he can, almost as a natural progression. Of course Jun Do is sent to Texas - why not? Of course he can assume the identity of a man whose face is known to every citizen in the whole country - why not? Jun Do himself evolves from innocent bystander in his own life to a major player on a national scale, bringing us along with him. And while Kim Jong-il is certainly the wizard pulling levers behind the curtain and his presence is felt behind every conversation and every decision made, the story is never specifically about him. Johnson successfully avoids falling into the satirical trap, focusing on what life in a fear state run by a puppet master madman must truly be like. Eventually, Kim is exposed as the fallible, short-sighted, lunatic dictator that we know him to be, opening a brief window for Jun Do. Even so, at its heart the novel is really all about the people who suffer in the wake of Kim's crazy - the citizens who live in fear under his iron hand, never even daring to try for a better life away from North Korea.

In the end, through simple storytelling on Adam Johnson's part, we are no longer jaded, Western observers of CNN reports on political maneuverings - we have witnessed (albeit in a fictional form) what life is like for the citizens of today's North Korea. And it ain't good. But there is always hope - and that hope is what drives this remarkable story along.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Mirage by Matt Ruff

History is, of course, all about perspective. Our own personal perspective, sure, but also our collective ethnocentric perspective. Author Matt Ruff has managed to flip all that we think we know about the last decade of world history on its collective ass in his new novel, The Mirage.

First, here's a little history: the United Arab States (UAS) was formed after 13 independent states around the Arab Peninsula broke away from the Ottoman Empire in the late-19th century. While Europe went to war in the early-20th century, the UAS quietly grew into an industrial giant with the discovery of local petroleum reserves. When North African Muslims were threatened by Germany in 1941, the UAS declared war on the Axis countries, liberating 5 African states to join the union in the process. In 1944, the UAS invaded France's southern coast, leading the Allied forces to victory. (Adolf Hitler was beheaded at Nuremberg in 1946.) 

Over the ensuing decades, the UAS grew into a world superpower, expanding to 22 states & experiencing wealth and prosperity. On November 9, 2001, everything changed. Two airplanes hijacked by Christian fundamentalists from America crashed into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in downtown Baghdad, killing thousands of people. A third plane was crashed into the Arab Defense Ministry headquarters in Riyadh. After a white supremacist group from the Rocky Mountain Territories in North America laid claim to the attacks, the UAS invaded Denver, sparking a decade-long War on Terror.

As you can see, much of this world is familiar, with significant twists. America is a third world backwater, filled with loose alliances, broken states, and fundamentalist militias. Osama bin Laden is a hero from the Afghan war with Orthodox Russia and a senator from Arabia. Saddam Hussein is a thug and an organized crime boss from Baghdad. The state of Israel is in what was northern Germany & occupies the West Bank of the Rhine. Lyndon B. Johnson was president of the Christian States of America (CSA) from 1963-2003. Louisiana was liberated by UAS troops in the Mexican Gulf War. You get the idea. 

The real twist to this - yes, these are not the twists, in fact - is that in the present day, Arab Homeland Security has captured an American who claims that the whole world is just a mirage and that in the real world, everything is reversed. In the man's apartment, agents find a copy of the long-defunct New York Times dated September 12, 2001 that appears to refute his claims. As it turns out, AHS has other objects of interest in their possession: an American flag with a field of white stars instead of the familiar golden cross, a map of the Middle East with Israel instead of Palestine & Iran instead of Persia, and a French newspaper with similar headlines to the Times one. But what does this all mean?
"This mirage you speak of, it's God's doing?"
Costello nodded. "'The last shall be first, and the first last...' God's turned the world upside down."
"And why would He do that?"
"To punish us."
"The Americans?"
"For what sin?"
"Pride," Costello said.
Despite the phenomenally clever and original premise, The Mirage does have its faults. The cast of Arab Homeland Security agents and detective-types fall a little flat in the personality department and, while necessary for that all-important perspective, the familiar name dropping gets a little tedious. Dick Cheney, George Bush, Saddam, Osama, Kissinger, LBJ, even David Koresh. Law & Order: Halal, CSI: Damascus. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But stylistically it reads like a mass market thriller, which I think is the author's intention - with the notable exception that the entire plot premise gives the reader pause. Even with all the hokey faux-cultural references, The Mirage makes you think - it challenges our preconceptions about the inner workings of our world in a way that fiction rarely does. Rather than just being an out-of-the-box Tom Clancy novel, we are challenged to reflect on our world - and America's place in it - a little differently.

We live under the assumption that things are the way they are because that's just how it is - but Ruff proves that with just a slight tweaking, our world could be a very different place. In the case of his created universe, the perspective is only shifted to a different hemisphere - the world is very much the same, just from a different vantage point, but with huge ramifications. And like I said, history is all about perspective.