“It was 135 pages that felt like 500.” This was one of the most astute, smart things ever said at my Rock & Roll Bookclub. My friend, Atom, was talking about a novella we had all read that took each of us an entire month to slog through. Yes, thirty days for only 135 pages.
And this is exactly how I feel about Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, a 400ish page book that felt like 1200. It took me more than two months to read this one and I only perserved because I’ll be discussing it at Book Riot and my resolution was to read more books outside of my usual taste.
Man, what a miserable failure this one was. For me. I have to add the for me part because this novel has been pretty widely lauded by reviewers and those readers whose opinions I respect, and yet this left me frustrated and bored.
The son of the title is Jun Do, who is kept in his father’s orphanage with other parentless boys in North Korea. He lives in barbarous conditions which teaches him well because after catastrophe strikes the orphanage, Jun Do becomes a solider in the mines and eventually is plucked to be a sort of North Korean spy, sent various places to kill and kidnap people. At some point he lands on a fishing boat where his job is to monitor radio transmissions. On the boat Jun Do learns a bit about friendship and family. Things continue to spiral in absurdity and eventually Jun Do finds himself at the ranch of a Texas Senator. When he arrives back in North Korea after his trip to the US, Jun Do is sent to a prison camp and things get more and more awful until we arrive at part 2 of the book which finds Jun Do taking on the identity of North Korean hero and famous asshole Commander Ga. Then things get even more ridiculous.
Mixed into this miasma are alternating chapters from the loudspeakers that fill North Korean homes that pump the citizens with government propaganda and tells stories. In this case, the loudspeakers are retelling the story of Commander Ga (now being portrayed by Jun Do) and his wife, Sun Moon, a beautiful, famous actress.
It’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to why I didn’t enjoy reading this book. I had a hard time discerning what was satire and what was honest so the whole story didn’t sit well with me. I was sometimes confused especially once Jun Do took on the identity of Commander Ga and maybe I missed something but, like, how come nobody cared that he wasn’t really Commander Ga, especially the Dear Leader?
At times this felt like the worst kind of poverty tourism and/or torture porn. The descriptions of poverty and poor living conditions are relentless. I get that, and I understand that North Korea is probably a horrifying place to live. But these kinds of things coming from someone who grew up in America and now teaches at Stanford rubbed me wrong, especially in a novel that swerves back and forth between trying to give us honest insight into the horrors of North Korea and tries to play those horrors for satire/humor.
And the torture? I skimmed a lot of it because I just can’t stomach that kind of thing. While I understand that these kinds of things probably happen pretty regularly in North Korea, I didn’t need the repeated, in-depth descriptions of how to torture a person. They were graphic and a lot of times seemed unnecessary.
So yeah, I can’t see what so many others saw in this book and I’m so glad to be done with it.
I don’t think there’s a single book that every single person loves. I loved this one, but I’ve been in your spot before, scratching my head and wondering what the hell people find so attractive about certain books.