The Short Version: Pak Jun Do, a young North Korean orphan, rises from poverty and hopelessness to eventually usurp the identity of one of Kim Jong Il’s most fearsome generals. He falls in love and, eventually, makes the greatest sacrifice to free his adopted wife and children.
The Review: Firstly, let me give a shout out to Book Riot’s excellent discussion (released today, wonderfully) of this book. Because Jodi Chromey pretty much nails it: this was underwhelming at best.
This is one of the most critically lauded books of 2012 – everyone who’s anyone seems to’ve loved it. And yet I found myself so completely at odds with the reviewers based on one simple, enduring thought: I was bored. There are novels that present a test of endurance, like Bleak House or Gravity’s Rainbow because of their length and subject matter and writing style… but there’s something within those books that pulls you back, no matter how frustrated you get with them. This book, on the other hand, felt… it offended me, how bored I was.
Look, North Korea is – sadly, when you think about it – ripe for the picking when it comes to satire or even just plain old regular storytelling. I mean, this clip from 30 Rock (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhohteHuyPM) will never not make me laugh. Kim Jong Il was a strange little dude and so, in the hands of a talented writer, you’d think we could see something really challenging (in a good way) come about. But this novel alternately feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be – bouncing between the first person story of Jun Do, the first person story of the interrogator, the third person story of Commander Ga, and the propaganda interludes – and like it knows exactly what it wants to be: a book that could be described by people as “remarkable” and “daring” and “a triumph” because it deals so “deftly” with a rarely-touched-upon subject matter. Those quotes, by the way, are all descriptors pulled directly from jacket copy on the paperback edition of the book – and to every single one of those reviewers, as well as the author himself, I have this response: “oh piss off.”
There is nothing daring about this book whatsoever. For it to be considered daring, I should think it would provoke any sort of emotional response whatsoever. Make me sympathise with the “bad” North Koreans – that would be daring. A book that basically tries (and fails, might I add) to rip off (I’m sorry, pay homage to) Casablanca in the last third – after having been an entirely different book for the first interminable two thirds does not, to me, qualify as daring. I kept coming back to this book only because I could not bear to not finish it – it was the sort of book that I couldn’t bear to let ‘win’, if that makes sense to you.
I will say that it was not without bright moments. As much as I did not care one whit about a single character (except for perhaps the Girl Rower, of all things – now THERE is an interesting story to spin into a North Korea novel… too bad it was peripheral at best), I did enjoy some of Johnson’s writing. The propaganda interludes, although horribly misplaced in this otherwise moderately somber novel, were hilarious and captured that “man, that place is crazy” vibe that we, in the West, will inevitably feel whenever we read about North Korea. Similarly, the scene about halfway(?) through where Jun Do visits Texas – it wasn’t a great sequence but it was at least somewhat interesting and the clash of cultures provided easy entertainment. I had hoped, though, that it wouldn’t be the high point of the novel – but I genuinely think it might’ve been.
The other big issue – and I realize that this might seem to run contrary to some of the things I’ve just said, but bear with me – is that this feels too easy. It feels like Johnson didn’t really make the effort that he could’ve to either create blinding, brilliant satire that in the end is revealed (quite shockingly) as truth OR to really get down and dirty and make us feel what it truly is to live in North Korea these days. Someone equates Johnson’s work here to Dickens on the back cover of the book and, having just spent a year getting to know ol’ Charlie, I wanted to throw the book across the room (hopefully braining that reviewer in the process) for that comparison. Because for every brief moment of the interrogator’s story where he’s sitting on the crowded trains or where Commander Ga and his family go out into the city… there’s so much else that feels completely and utterly vague and blank. The only real descriptive scene that I can remember is in the cemetery… but that scene doesn’t actually shed any light on the circumstances of living in North Korea. It furthers the story a little – but by that point, Johnson had already lost me and so I didn’t really care.
Rating: 2 out of 5. There are elements here of a good book, even maybe a great one. Johnson has some splendid turns of phrase and he shifts voice very well. But this feels like a cheap ploy to garner critical attention: “ooh, look, I’ve written a book about NORTH KOREA!” and no one is really doing that right now. Possibly because the truth is stranger than any fiction could ever be – but if a real satirist like a Gary Shteyngart OR an intensely dramatic novelist like an Ian McEwan took a crack at a North Korean novel, it would put this one to immense shame. For that, and because I was bored and this book sucked nearly a week’s reading out of my life, I can’t really say that much positively. I will be terribly disappointed if it makes it beyond the second round of the ToB.