Adam Johnson Goes to Bad Korea, Lives to Write About It, Insult Me

Adam Johnson Reading from The Orphan Master’s Son @ PowerHouse Arena

Adam Johnson Orphan Master's Son

Who besides the guy in line behind me could know the correct spelling of stupefying?

Something about Adam Johnson struck me as instantly likeable. I’d tiptoed late into PowerHouse Arena, maybe halfway through the audience Q&A, and quietly purchased a copy of “The Orphan Master’s Son.” Set my dainty ass on the concrete slabs, peered out from behind my thick glasses to my first visit to PowerHouse Arena.

Standing behind a podium or, later, sitting at a table, Adam’s height was striking –- an attribute that likely turned heads in Korea. I pulled out my notebook and began taking notes as Adam continued reminiscing about the citizens of the most secluded country in the world. Overall, his assessment was of a people fully aware of the life they lived, no “people’s paradise,” despite the ban on any outside media or the 24-7 barrage of propaganda.

His government-appointed tour guide, or “minder,” as he put it, accompanied him nearly everywhere he went in North Korea. The sips of information we receive via home videos released to the internet largely corroborate Adam’s summation: a crippled, sad country whose so-paranoid-it’d-be-funny-if-it-weren’t-real government is determined to put on a rosy picture for what few Westerners make it across their border.

But that’s one of many problems in finding the truth about what really goes on behind the desperately cheerful “minders” and frowning soldiers – so much of what we hear about North Korea is an anecdote, a story, a rumor. Adam used the example of in-home propaganda, a hardwired speaker or low-fi radio found in every home, ostensibly installed to protect against an American air raid. Though nearly every emigrant confirmed their existence, there’s no video, no picture, no “official” confirmation.

It’s difficult, then, to separate wild hyperbole from mild exaggeration, slight confusion from outright fiction. This might be where the critics and Adam diverge, in a way. Perhaps Adam sees his job as crafting a novel around the truth he experienced, tempered by the stories of those who managed to escape, while some critics believe that the harrowing real-life stories from the escapees justify a more somber tone.

Christopher Beha, writing for the Times, posited that Adam wanted to have his North Korea both ways; a country wildly dangerous and almost cheerfully backwards, lining up passages about torture alongside scenes of Kim Jung-Il performing like something out of “1984” meets the “Marx Bros.”:

Johnson has said that his latest book began in a similarly farcical spirit, as a short story called “The Best North Korean Short Story of 2005,” inspired by the “loonier” elements of Kim Jong-il’s regime. But after some research, which included a trip to Pyongyang, Johnson realized that the “gravity” of his subject matter instilled “a sense of duty.” Having learned this, I found it dispiriting to arrive at a brutal interrogation scene in “The Orphan Master’s Son” and recognize the similarities here to the methods used by the police in the dystopian Oakland of “Teen Sniper.” More dispiriting still was seeing Kim Jong-il appear not just as a loony but as a kind of merry prankster.

On the question of talent, however, the critics are nearly unanimous in their praise (a comparison of Adam to George Saunders finally chased me off the couch and onto a subway). I’ll note here that my opinion of the book remains unformed, as I’ve not read it. Irresponsible, yes, but such is the life of the unemployed.

Riding over on the G train, I’d read a few reviews to have something to talk about, if the case arose. And so it did. Sitting at the signing table, nursing to the occasional bead of sweat with the back of a shirtsleeve and a swig of beer, Adam spoke with everyone as long as they were willing to stand and respond. When my turn came, in a series of apologies I begged excuse for having shown up late, for not having had time to read the book yet (and despite that, asking a question about the book). But I wondered: how did he feel about the critics who said he had a responsibility to depict a “real” North Korea?

“I don’t really pay attention to reviews,” he said. “But I found North Korea to be a hilarious place. If I didn’t include the pathos and hilarity and everything else, I wouldn’t be telling the right story.”

Boom. No hard feelings, though. Adam invited me to send him an email when I finished the book, then asked if PowerHouse was my local bookstore. No, it’s not! In fact, I make it to quite a lot of these readings, because…

Usual intro, nervousness, dry mouth, etc. Adam was doubtful, then incredulous, and finally demanded proof that I wasn’t off my meds. He asked to see my smart phone, which he’d guessed was already loaded up to assuage any nervousness on the part of the insulters. It wasn’t. I pulled it up as fast as AT&T would allow.

20 minutes later, he was convinced. He began scribbling, then posed a question: how do you spell stupefying? I remembered an “I” in the middle, and told him as much. Oops. After he’d finished, Adam read aloud the insult to those in line behind us. A student said in an accent that he’d thought “stupefying” had an “E.” I frowned, Adam squinted at the spelling.

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