November Selection: The Orphan Master’s Son (2012)

On November 12 we will discuss Ron Powers’ selection

        Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son, 2012

Here is some preliminary information about the book provided by Ron Powers.
In our recent book club readings, we’ve “traveled” by novel to Japan in Kokoro, India in The White Tiger, and Afghanistan in “A Thousand Splendid Sun.” For November, I would like us to visit North Korea via the Pulitzer Prize winning novel written by Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son.
This novel was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it has been hailed by other critics and journals across America. Zadie Smith in The Los Angeles Times says the novel is “an epic feat of storytelling”; the Wall Street Journal calls it “The single best work of fiction published in 2012”; and Ruth Franklin in The New Republic states in her review “Remarkable and heartbreaking…To [the] very short list of exceptional novels that also serve a humanitarian purpose The Orphan Master’s Son must now be added.”
I suggest that you read no further reviews of the novel but that you just jump in and experience this extraordinary novel with your own sensibilities uninfluenced by outside sources.
But it you’d like a sense of where you’re headed, I’ll offer one last comment from The Washington Post review of the novel:  “Imagine Charles Dickens paying a visit to Pyongyang….”


About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
This entry was posted in 2013 Selections, Orphan Master's Son and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to November Selection: The Orphan Master’s Son (2012)

  1. Ron Powers says:

    Book Club Members

    As often happens with our book club selections, a news article, or two or three, will appear in the media almost simultaneously with the announcement of our book’s title, topic, or theme. David Gilmour has often referred to this occurrence as a “synchronicity.” We do seem to have an uncanny knack for synchronicity.

    It’s happened again for our November selection, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. This time an article appeared in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, September 1, 2013: “Land Of Mystery: Two books explore the reasons for North Korea’s confounding survival.”

    The book review, written by historian Mark Atwood Lawrence, looks at Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea, by Sheila Miyoshi Jager and The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, by Andrei Lankov.

    Lawrence asks the same question many of us must have asked ourselves as we read about Jun Do’s travails: “How can we explain the remarkable longevity of a regime that, by all rights, should have landed in the dustbin of history long ago?” Both of these books attempt to answer that question, and Lawrence calls both books “superb.”

    Jager posits the following theory: “The key to the regime’s survival…was its dramatic acceleration of the decade-old nuclear program.” In other words, North Korea played the “nuclear card” to gain more American economic aid, with very little given up in exchange, and that economic aid helped that starving nation, teetering on the brink of extinction in the 1990s, to survive.

    Lankov’s book provides details of the daily life in North Korea that makes it sound a great deal like George Orwell’s 1984, a comparison every one of us must have thought as we read the novel. Indeed, Lankov’s theory of why North Korea has been able to survive this long (since 1945) is North Korea’s ability to “prevent the vast majority of the population from receiving information about the outside world.”

    For a full review of both books, this link should take you to the Times copy:

    If you are interested in even more information about North Korea, I’d like to recommend these two fairly recent documentaries, both available on Netflix:


    Inside North Korea
    Ron Boothe will be sending out more information to you about our meeting location closer to the November 12th discussion date. I’m sending this e-mail to you from sunny Arizona but looking forward to our upcoming visit!

    Best, Ron Powers

  2. Stirling Smith says:

    Hi All, As Ron [Powers] says, ibid.(I )”can’t leave it alone”. This might be interesting. has 2 articles on DRofNK. More to think about. Stirling

  3. David Gilmour says:

    Another piece, in attachment, about North Korea from The Atlantic (Sept. 2013) , regarding defection, abduction, spying, etc. A short sketch with anecdotes and comments of an American defector that corroborate some details that occur in Orphan Master’s Son. — David

  4. Ron Powers says:

    My thanks again to everyone present on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, for our discussion at Ron Boothe’s home of “The Orphan Master’s Son,” by Adam Johnson. What a beautiful fall morning it was!

    I am pleased that every person present participated in our discussion. Because of your diverse backgrounds, each of you offered unique insights that lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the novel for me and I’m sure for everyone else there.

    At the discussion, I promised that I would forward to you a copy of my “notes” taken during my reading of, and two re-readings of, the novel. These notes formed part of the outline of what I hoped to share with you that Tuesday.

    Notes From The Orphan Master’s Son

    I don’t pretend that these notes are comprehensive of Johnson’s work. But they may be of interest to you as kind of recapitulation and perhaps even a deepening of your understanding of what we experienced together.

    I will see you all again, in person, in the spring of 2014. I never long for time to pass. It does that faster than we wish it to as we grow older. But I do know that I’ll be in your presence again, in May, before you or I can believe it.

    Until then, my best wishes to you all.

    Ron Powers

  5. David Gilmour says:

    Great to see these notes. Thanks for posting them. I did not take down much as I read it aloud only once from an e-book, though I could have made many notes, too.

    Ron’s Notes are good reminders of the foreignness of North Korean life, the strange paranoid culture of people estranged from their true nature for survival’s sake. The insight about inner and outer motives, insight about human nature under difficult–surreal– life circumstances was, for me, much of the power of this novel. The story was good, with a lively post-modernist design–non-linear, flash-backs, jump cuts, and several changing points of view. I had reminiscences of Kafka’s surreal stories while reading about Jun Do/Commander Ga. Kafka lived his paranoia to the full, revealed in “Metamorphosis” and The Trial. Some quotes of his struck me apropos to the mentality of the North Korean characters:

    “It is only our conception of time that makes us call the Last Judgment by that name; in fact, it is a permanent court-martial.”

    “Laughable is the way you have put yourself in harness for this world.”

    “You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of this world; that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering that you could avoid. ”

    “The spirit becomes free only when it ceases to be a support.”

    “From the true antagonist boundless courage flows from you.”

    I reflected a great deal on our culture of propaganda and social control while reading The Orphan Master’s Son. The only noted highlight and quote I chose from the story was late in the work, when the Dear Leader spoke to Ga about “New beginnings, a fresh start.” But first he was curious how Ga (then poor Jun Do) ever escaped from the prison. Ga thinks to himself :

    “Ga thought about reminding the Dear leader that they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them. He considered sharing how there was only one penalty, the ultimate one, for questioning reality, how a citizen could fall into great jeopardy for simply noticing that realities had changed. Even a warden wouldn’t risk that.” (p. 416)

    I think we, as U.S. citizens, do accept, feel obliged especially in public places, to accept realities fed us by our teachers, preachers, government, leaders who wish us to buy into the myths of historical narratives, spiritual ideologies, etc. and remain blind to the devious workings of the powers elite. Look how Ellsberg, Manning, Assange, Snowden and a host of daring whistleblowers have put their lives and careers in jeopardy to inform people in America of another reality and to expose to people in other lands the hidden picture of “reality.” Then there’s the horrendous sham of advertising which harangues to motivate people to get and spend, “to lay waste our powers.” Kafka, in a simpler time, could write “Someone must have been telling tales about Joseph K.” And now, by the things we write online and say on phone and buy by computer and play with on screens, we are telling tales on ourselves to some unknown collector of profiles.

    There’s much to continue discussing about this novel. I hope we can have coffees over the next weeks and continue some discourse about it.–David

  6. Jim Robbins says:

    I agree, a good discussion. Some thoughts of my own;

    During our meeting at Ron’s some comment was made on the three voices used throughout this month’s reading. One that had us all speculating was the scratchy speaker voice that came into each residence by way of those omnipresent loudspeakers installed by the State. I was struck by our group’s comparison to the TV program MASH where the character Radar had use of a similar tool.

    The first two voices were the perspectives of the “victim made hero” and the “perpetrator redeemed”. These two voices were emerging identities, relating in pain, suffering and loss, but on opposite ends of a cord of terror. But that third voice, was it about North Korean State propaganda and an infiltration of lies about the U.S., or was it something more akin to a universal radar broadcasting out for all on human rights; a cosmic backfeed, a divine fool’s discharge, a surreal screeching from humanity’s submerged soul?

    And how do these radar warnings play into the song, story and identity of our own American national anthem? The narratives in this book have us gaze without blinking into the bowels of an autocratic regime, and then with stellar radar it has us sense the terrors that hide in our closets and under our own floorboards. Both countries stand small – with compromised citizenry seeking voice for the just song of liberation – in their own ways.

  7. David Gilmour says:

    Hi All,

    I know we’re never finished with any of our literature if we continue to discuss matters.

    Just as we had many voices policing our minds in reading Eliot’s The Waste Land, that poem never gave us much of a face or fleshly body to imagine in a protagonist. The personas were all sounds through which we were shown the waste land. The Super-persona is nearly always the author deluding us readers with his detached or masked personality. Personas are voices of made-up characters.

    Point of view is getting trickier and denser now writers are post-post-modernist. [Eliot was a “pre-post-post-modernist” in this respect. :)] What Jim calls “voices” are the points of view, angles of perception, through which the author “sounds out” or delivers his plot and characters. It seems in our time, as we saw in Let the Great World Spin, authors keep us hooked by changing the points of view, giving us different views, sometimes with different moods, tones, i.e. “voices.” It’s very hard for the authorial voice to remain totally hidden.

    At the beginning of Orphan Master’s Son, there is an omniscient perspective in the opening biography of Jun Do. Who had recorded this biography, with much dialog with compatriots and inner thought of Jun Do? This is the omniscient narrator, an author playing god. At some point this segues into the limited omniscient perspective eight years later as Jun Do speaks with Officer So in initial stages of practice at body snatching, preparing with Gil for the kidnapping of the Japanese opera singer. The same sequence of omniscient to limited omniscientoccurs with the interim of biography as Jun Do undergoes language training (short shrift on this) preparing him for the Junma expedition. Both are rather seamless transitions, rather like a movie voiceover through the first scenes that segue into the dramatic action, focusing on Jun Do, whose inner life alone is known through Part One.

    Surprise comes in the introduction of an unknown “we” and “I”-speaker. “Who can this be?” we ask our-reading-selves for a while until it’s revealed. Part Two jumps to the Interrogator in the voice of We, who slips once in a while to speak for himself as “I.’ Eventually the reader is aware the voice is first person singular perspective, that of interrogator/biographer who is excited about recording the “new Ga’s” existence. After one brief “Citizens!” daily news break, the reader is returned to The interrogator’s relationship with his parents and eventually the treatment of the new Ga. The reader knows only the inner life of “I.” And of course Jun Do, as “he” with the omniscient perspective letting us in.

    In the voice of the Loudspeaker, the People’s Storyteller was an anonymous voice. The voice might be called a supersona [obvious, obnoxious pun :)]. However in listening to the installments of Best North Korean Story, we as audience continue reading another “omniscient” or controlling narrator, author as super-persona, as it were, one fabricating the Sun Moon relationship with the new Commander Ga. And so it goes for many episodes to the point I had to remind myself this is the propaganda fiction. One can get hooked to believe almost anything if the story carriers well. Interspaced we learn about the life lived by Ga/Jun Do the author wishes the reader to know: his relationship with the Dear Leader, setting up the meeting to retrieve the Woman Rower; flashing forward to the Interrogator ‘s torture chamber for Buc’s story of the real Ga’s death; back to the relationship with Sun Moon and her family. The voices come and go variously in episodes. The suicide and euthanasia deaths of Interrogator and Jun Do, horrific crises, are told to us penultimately, so that the final resolution is more positive, a smoother release for the reader with the suspenseful, successful escape.

    We have been treated to this poly-POV presentation in much of our recent fiction. As budding writers many decades ago, we were not allowed in writing workshops to change point of view for variety’s sake. Then someone said “Screw that rule!” It’s been done throughout the history of literature, so why use only one. It’s important that the change be subtle, artistically meaningful, which means it doesn’t put the reader off or confuse him/her. –David

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