A substantial amount of literary industry ink has lamented over the Pulitzer Committee’s failure to designate a winner for the 2012 fiction prize, but none of that should take anything away from this year’s winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. In fact, this extraordinary novel may be the most accomplished winner in recent years: a sprawling narrative with deeply drawn characters, an astonishing structure, and relentless, often thrilling, storytelling almost entirely set within Communist North Korea.
But let me be clear, don’t read this work if you can’t stand to be challenged by descriptions of inhumanity so far removed from our standards of moral behavior. Horrible things are perpetrated by so many, and even Johnson’s skill at limiting gruesome detail doesn’t diminish the senseless horror. In the author interview at the end of the book, Johnson describes his extensive research: online, interviews with defectors, even a trip to Pyongyang, all of which leads to a narrative authority that never seems lacking. But this expertise only makes the injustices harder to stomach—if even 10% of the outrages are accurate then the reality is nearly beyond comprehension.
Still, this is a book about freedom and truth, and our perception of those subjects rests always nearby as you read. Johnson explains, here again in the author interview, that we can’t really know what’s in the heart of everyday North Koreans—or their leaders—until the country opens up, even marginally, to allow personal expression. My guess is that this country is so isolated and authoritarian that even a wholesale change—along the lines of Chinese capitalism, for instance—would require decades for attitudes to realign.
Yet for all the insane torture and inhumanity described in this novel it remains a thrilling read, filled with love and longing, and with a prose style that never takes the reader out of the fictional dream. It is deeply affecting and one of the great, no, most important works of imagination I’ve ever read. I believe that students of great literature will study this book for years to come. This year, no doubt, the Pulitzer committee got it right!