The Peculiar Orientalism of The Orphan Master's Son

Orphan Master's Son

Have you ever consumed an Eton mess? A popular English dessert, it earned its name from looking like what remains after a bunch of teenage boys beat each others' brains out and then have a drunken orgy with a dingo.

But it's delicious, and you can't stop eating it, even though the Oreos and the strawberries battle each other with textures that feel similar but don't fit together in any way shape or form.

Ahem. I'm hungry now. Anyway...

If you take two steps away from Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, it looks like a fucking mess; it moves from cold gritty realism to picaresque fantasy to delusional fiction (which, ironically, is a dangerous quality in a work of fiction) without bothering to clue in the reader.

When it succeeds, it ruins you so bad that you feel cowardly for even wanting to look away. 90% of the novel falls into that camp. But Johnson disrupts the flow too often with cheap (and insensible) tricks that leave you questioning any truth in the world he fashions.

I imagine any discussion of North Korea has that problem: all we know about that country is how much we don't know. But think about constructing an entire nation from the views of the ones who choose to defect. If the United States were suddenly closed for business, how might Texan secessionists describe the country?

This is what The Orphan Master's Son struggles with. As Barbara Demick said in her own review of the novel:

"People are inclined to believe whatever outrage they read about North Korea, but bad as it is, I've not heard of political prisoners being lobotomised with nails inserted over the eyeball or with electrical charge."

And this is where it hurts to be such a structural mess. If the narrative kept focus, you can overlook the muddy details and choose to follow the highly compelling story of one Jun Do (whose homophonic resemblance to John Doe is no accident).

I love science fiction, so I'd never belittle a setting for being imaginary. But the fact remains, this is not science fiction. North Korea is a real place, with real people. Crafting a dystopian view of a mysterious place seems like an impossible talk; for a dystopian novel to work, you need to understand the society it critiques.

Choosing to set this work of fiction in a place you know nothing about (and don't pretend taking one trip for a couple of days in a highly controlled environment tells you anything about a society) smacks of orientalism of the worst kind. All our knowledge is based on what we imagine their lives are like, which erases any space for true humanity.

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