The Short Version: Six National Book Award-winning short stories, including a return to the Korean Peninsula in the title tale and a story that veers into an alt-universe version of Johnson’s own life.
The Review: I was lucky enough to attend the National Book Awards afterparty this year and the confusion that was rippling through the space in the wake of this book’s unexpected win was palpable. It’s not to say that anybody doesn’t think Johnson deserves the National Book Award… it’s just, “this book? this year?”
And that was running through my mind while reading this collection, although I also think I’m far more critical of Johnson than most. I picked up the book thinking “show me how this could have beat out A Little Life or Fates and Furies” and I put it down still wondering. In fact, two stories in this collection are among some of the worst I’ve read in a long time (even as one of them is one of the most impressive, showing that there can be disparity of quality in even the leanest collections) – one of these stories, “Hurricanes Anonymous”, made it into The 2009 Best American Short Stories, which just goes to show that (again) I’m maybe just not the reader for Johnson. But I went in with high hopes.
The opening story, “Nirvana”, is a strange little slice of near-future that imagines a world where an unnamed President (although pretty clearly Obama, judging by the cadences of speech) has been assassinated and a programmer has created a hologram of him to give people some solace. His wife is suffering from a paralytic disease and he can’t quite come to terms with her probable death. It’s a tight little tale, full of anxiety, but it never quite resolves as neatly as it could’ve. This is a running theme of Johnson’s stories, including the title tale – which sees Johnson returning to Korea after The Orphan Master’s Son, this time following two defectors from the North who can’t quite let go of what their lives were like now that they’ve made it to the South. But it felt disingenuous, somehow, in some of the same ways that I felt about that wildly-acclaimed novel: I never really felt like it was anything more than an attempt at anthropology, bordering on appropriation. It felt like what a reader would anticipate such a story to feel like, as opposed to a genuine representation of that story.
But it’s “Hurricanes Anonymous”, a story set in the Lake Charles area just after Hurricane Rita (the less-discussed sister to Hurricane Katrina, who arrived less than a month later and harried the already traumatized region), that bothered me the most. Perhaps its because I feel a particularly personal connection to Louisiana, having family ties to the region, or perhaps it is because I’m sick of reading stories about poor twentysomethings who mess up their lives by having a kid and then decide that they can’t handle the responsibility… and it turns out its all because their parents had been the same way and the cycle continues, unbroken. This story felt lazy to me, not to mention reductive, and even when there were moments of inspired writing, I couldn’t get on board because I was so angry that this story had been singled out as a member of the Best American stories as well as part of a National Book Award-winning collection.
The collection is redeemed, somewhat, by “Dark Meadow” – which is the aforementioned “one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time” story. Here, Johnson pulls off the incredible feat of diving into the mind of a pedophile – but not a creepy one like the one in, say, Little Children. This one tries to be good, doesn’t hurt anyone, and is grappling with his affliction as best he can… and Johnson makes us feel for him. He forces us to empathize with someone who we would usually dismiss as a monster without a second thought – and he does it with incredible skill. “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine”, about a former Stasi prison administrator, attempts similar tricks but with significantly diminished returns. The emotional nuance of “Dark Meadow” remains deeply affecting to me even now and, had I read this individual story in The New Yorker or something, I think I would’ve been reevaluating my opinion of Johnson as a writer. Instead, it feels like an unexpected bright spot from an author who I’ve come to expect a let-down from (at least as compared to the raves he tends to receive in the critical community).
I should also mention “Interesting Facts”, the story that kept Lauren Groff up one night, because it’s the story that I feel the most torn about. On the one hand, it’s an interesting and ghostly (pun slightly intended) look at the grieving process of a family after a parent dies young. On the other, I’m sort of horrified by Johnson’s decision to include himself and a creepy alt-universe version of his life: the main character’s husband is the spitting image of Johnson, complete with Pulitzer-winning novel about North Korea, and his wife (said main character) is dying of cancer. In a too-meta twist, she’s a failed writer – and Johnson pillaged one of her characters to produce a story about a pedophile called “Dark Meadow”. The two stories coming in short succession (“Dark Meadow” comes first) implies that the reader is maybe meant to draw connections between all of the stories? Or that these two stories are twinned, somehow, like a binary star system? Or that Johnson was just interested in trying for a meta twist like those his compatriots are so hot on these days? But as potent as the emotional angle of the story is, it fails on the meta angle and colors the whole collection as a result.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. I was tempted to give this a whole extra star for how good “Dark Meadow” is – but the entire collection is wholly mediocre and so it ought to land squarely in the middle of the rating scale. The first three stories (“Nirvana”, “Dark Meadow”, “Interesting Facts”) are solid work, even as they don’t always succeed at everything they set out to achieve, but the last three stories (“Hurricanes Anonymous”, “George Orwell was a Friend of Mine”, and the title story) are full of all the worst tendencies: they’re reductive, they are full of themselves, they are overwrought. “Hurricanes Anonymous” and the title story aggravated me so much that I’m pretty sure I don’t need to read more of Johnson’s work – I think I might just be the wrong reader. Still, maybe another story like “Dark Meadow” will come around and catch my eye.
Now if only we could right the wrong of this book winning the National Book Award this year…