In 1985 during the early wet season in Australia’s Northern Territory, 46-year-old Val Plumwood’s fiberglass canoe was rammed by an attacking crocodile. She leapt from the flimsy vessel into the branches of a paperback tree near the bank and began to haul herself away from danger. The crocodile lunged up – “great toothed jaws bursting from the water,” remembered Plumwood – chawed into her groin, and dragged her out of the tree and under the silted water. In a fierce struggle she broke free and grabbed at the lowhanging branches. The crocodile locked onto her leg and spun her again under the surface of the water to drown her. Biologists call this the “death roll.”
There, Plumwood later wrote, “I glimpsed the world for the first time ‘from the outside,’ as a world no longer my own, an unrecognizeable bleak landscape composed of raw necessity, indifferent to my life or death … in which I had no more significance than any other edible being. The thought, ‘This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being, I am more than just food!’ was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat.”
The stories of our lives spin along in the currents of love and enmity and vice and virtue, but the jagged teeth of the crocodile have no respect for such narrative threads. As Plumwood discovered, our stories drown in the death roll – and they die too in North Korea as portrayed in Adam Johnson’s newest novel The Orphan Master’s Son. There are no storytellers in Johnson’s North Korea, only story takers. Human lives are gobbled up like food. Down to their wet and pulsing blood, citizens are nothing but a resource in service to the larger organism of the state.
The Orphan Master’s Son follows Pak Jun Do, the titular son who quickly outgrows a humble upbringing in an orphanage, passes through a page or two of military training, and transforms into a sort of superman. He feels no pain and fights like a lion. Through all his ensuing adventures clamped inside the jaws of the state, he maintains a childlike conviction of the possibilities of humankind.
Johnson’s pacing holds attention, but the language makes for strange reading. Here North Koreans talk like California surfers. “Are these the clothes of the last guy you kidnapped?” asks Pak. “Relax,” answers his officer, “I’ve done this a hundred times.” “Seriously?” Pak presses. The contrast of the voicing with the world these characters inhabit gives a whimsical, absurdist quality to the narration.
Of course, there is a certain otherworldliness to the whole despicable Kim dynasty which suits that effect. But in their American voices, Johnson’s North Koreans seem to wink at most of the state’s lies, as though they know it’s all a put-on. That rings false. The conditionability of the human mind causes us to believe without subtext or irony the most irrational, idiotic premises. North Koreans are as subject to this facility as anyone else. If you never have the chance to discover that for yourself, watch Crossing the Line, a documentary extraordinary for its access to a closed nation, and one that reveals the earnest faith of the middle-upper echelon of North Korean society. They buy what’s being sold.
Even if the world of The Orphan Master’s Son reads in parts like an evil Disneyland variety of authoritarianism, the story gathers momentum through the first few episodes. It feels true in essence, if not in material. Certain harrowing scenes clutch at you. You’ll feel their grip long after you’ve slapped the book cover shut. By the finish, Johnson makes a compelling case for storytelling as a staple of a free society, and shows that it’s possible even in the crocodile’s toothy vise to remember our loves and friendships and all the narrative currents that make us not foods or resources but sentient beings.
The question that is hinted at but never addressed is: Are the lies we condition ourselves to believe in free societies about love and virtue any more or less removed from reality than the lies of the North Korean state to its citizens?