This is a collection to return to, to fully explore the ideas and themes and revel in the boldness of the writing.
When I read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize) I was convinced that I had been given an insight into the bizarre world of North Korea. Johnson seemingly had uncovered the truth about that sad nation from the snippets of reported fact and conjecture available.
The publisher’s blurb for his newest title, Fortune Smiles, a collection of stories, boasts that it will ‘take you into the mind of characters you never thought you would meet’, and it does.
These are compelling stories, which demand the reader’s attention. Each of the six has the impact of a novel and I had to leave time between reading them to allow for the impressions to subside.
The powerful first story ‘Nirvana’ is futuristic in its setting, and contains concepts and ideas worthy of William Gibson. Johnson enables us to see the hope in the bleakness when writing about the engineer who has created a hologrammatic president (Obama?) in order to while away the hours as his quadriplegic wife sleeps in her iron lung and dreams of Kurt Cobain:
He adjusts his collar and cuffs, runs his thumb down a black lapel as if he exists only in the moment before a camera will broadcast him to the world.
‘Mr. President,’ I say. ‘I am sorry to bother you again.’
‘Nonsense,’ he tells me. ‘I serve at the pleasure of the people.’
‘Do you remember me?’ I ask. ‘Do you remember the problems I’ve been talking to you about?’
‘Perennial is the nature of the problems that plague man. Particular is the voice with which they call to each of us.’
‘My problem today is of a personal nature.’
‘Then I place this conversation under the seal.’
‘I haven’t made love to my wife in a long time.’
He holds up a hand to halt me. He smiles in a knowing, fatherly way.
‘Times of doubt,’ he tells me, ‘are inherent in the compact of civil union.’
‘Hurricanes Anonymous’ takes us into a dystopian landscape and only as we read on do we realise the story is set in the present, not in the future, as Nonc, part Native-American, accompanied by his young son, searches for his wife in a world of refugee camps and military occupation in the aftermath of a hurricane.
The third story, ‘Interesting Facts’, is indeed interesting as Johnson switches gender to tell the story of a dying unpublished author who watches as her husband starts an affair. We find out that her husband has used her unpublished material to write his own alternative story, ‘Dark Meadow’, which is also the title of the fifth story in this collection. Her husband has also published a novel about North Korea. This story plays with the earlier ‘Nirvana’ and riffs with more possibilities for the couples as they struggle with the concept of ‘in sickness and in health’.
The author describes her second unpublished novel:
To ratchet up the tension, I had a sexual predator live next door named Mr. Roses. My husband came up with the name. In fact, my husband became quite enamored with this character. He was really helpful in developing Mr. Roses’ backstory and generating his dialog. Then my husband stole this character and wrote a story from Mr. Roses’ perspective called ‘Dark Meadow’. I can’t even say the name of this novel without getting angry.
‘George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine’ is set in the present but deals firmly with the past. Hans, now retired, lives in the shadows of the Stasi prison he once ran. He is a self-deluded, yet sympathetic, character who has rationalised his own past and whose wife and daughter have left him. Hans is compelled to return to the prison, now a museum whose guides are former inmates, and to justify the regime he supervised. Blind to the injustices committed on his watch, he is adamant that the inmates were criminals and that he managed a just prison. In this story the punch is strong in the last paragraph and illuminates a kind of madness.
In ‘Dark Meadow’ we are introduced to a man guilty of thoughts that most of us would condemn in the harshest terms. Unlike Hans, he is not self-delusional; he is in control of his thoughts and actions. He is an evil man who tries to avoid committing evil and we are given a strange insight into his logic. This story is not written in a way that provokes any sympathy with its narrator. It is dark, again with a powerful finish, and yet we may understand while not empathising …
The Cub is the younger sister, a ten-year-old. Sometimes she walks to school on her own. The Cub often stops to examine the flowers in my bucket, but she never pulls one out.
I don’t have a dungeon or an ankle monitor. I don’t follow ice-cream trucks. I don’t even have the Internet, which is God’s gift to child sexual exploitation. You have to understand that I have never hurt anyone in my life and that I am the one who gets wounded in this story.
But I will admit this now, because this is going to be a certain kind of story: the Cub activates.
‘Fortune Smiles’ is set in Seoul, where we follow two defectors from North Korea as they try to make a life for themselves. It is the most hopeful and amusing story of the collection, and a love story that begins rather than ends. In a surreal conclusion, Sun-Ho, one of the defectors, floats off dreaming of drifting back to the past. His companion DJ stays to seize a new beginning, both choices encompassing the broader themes of this collection.
These are amazing stories: the reader needs to take time to digest each one before moving onto the next bravura piece. The writing is lovely, the ideas and concepts astounding. It is a collection to return to, in order to fully explore the ideas and themes and revel in the boldness of the writing.
Adam Johnson Fortune Smiles Doubleday 2015 PB 320pp $29.99
Reviewed in Newtown Review of Books by Michael Jongen