just trying to keep score.

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maazel continued

“There’s a reason most people never see anything of North Korea but Pyongyang. It’s because the rest of the country is squalid beyond all imagining, and this to spite the homogeneity of its design: single-story homes in a grid, whitewashed timber or stucco walls, the rooftops an orange clay tile, and every plot squared in with a brindled picket fence. There is no cement to pave the roads and no shoes to walk the cement, so mostly people are barefoot, even in the snow. The filth seems meticulous and prolific in its outreach — even the soap can’t stay clean — which makes sense of the delimited color scheme of people’s clothes: black, gray, black, brown. No one stands out unless you know what to look for… . I spent the first day in a janitor’s closet at the train station. Fuel being scarce, the schedule was a joke. A train came when it came. By the tracks: people asleep on the ice, in wheelbarrows, playing cards, trading nylon for corn, which cost a lot of corn. Faces wan and tapered, and everyone’s hair falling out. Amazing how hair and dust always find each other; the stuff blew across the tracks like briar.”

But I’m afraid it’s here, in the North Korea section, that the style finally fails, when distanced, crafted irony becomes insufficient or even inadequate. North Korea is hard to write about for a bunch of reasons — its isolation, its slow-moving humanitarian catastrophe — and its unknowability makes portraying that country a relatively high-stakes fictional game. But setting this against something like The Orphan Master’s Son, which also worked with misery and absurdity and the questions of fiction against North Korea, shows the limits of distance and craft.

April 12, 2013, 6:39am   Comments

johnson continued

"In a society where it is the collective that matters, we’re the only people who make the individuals count."


“‘You know what Dr. Song said about you? He said you had a gift, that you could say a lie while speaking the truth.’”

Now, that last bit? about the man and his story? That happens in the middle of a big, mostly comic set piece, with our hero in the middle of a halfassed North Korean delegation to Texas. It’s funny, and in such a way that doesn’t take away from the basic tragedy of the North Korean characters. But that passage ends with its speaker, Dr. Song, telling Jun Do, who he’s talking to, that the Americans will believe him as a man and not a story, undermining his point, or maybe exposing the lie at the heart of the assertion about the primacy of story. And I think that it’s interesting that Johnson straddles, so often, the line between double consciousness and bad faith — he’s very good on the one side, and very unfortunately ironic, or maybe just knowing, on the other side of it.

January 31, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

johnson continued

“‘Where we are from,’ he said, ‘stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.’”

But, alongside that ability to imagine a plausible response, Johnson also does this: as his novel goes on, and as it shifts from a thriller to a novel of education, to something else entirely, he adds layers of metaphor. This, especially, works: the division of a person into individual and legend, man and story. And that division lines up well alongside (or, I suppose, laid over, like a transparency) the double consciousness of the man who knows about the televisions and the rice but turns his back on them.

January 30, 2012, 11:00am   Comments

adam johnson, the orphan master’s son

"The tunnels always ended with a ladder leading up to a rabbit hole. Jun Do’s men would vie to be the ones to slip out and wander South Korea for a while. They’d come back with stories of machines that handed out money and people who picked up dog shit and put it in bags. Jun Do never looked. He knew all the televisions were huge and there was all the rice you could eat. Yet he wanted no part of it — he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing."
This is one of the nice leaps that Johnson makes — his capability to explain a plausible North Korean mindset, a way of thinking that can comprehend an outside world but still return to the inside. And, despite the fact that Johnson has done his research, despite the fact that he visited Pyongyang, this really does count as a feat of imagination.

Random House 01.10.12

January 29, 2012, 2:33pm   Comments