When a spur-of-the-moment mix-up forces Dongjoo -- a protagonist in one of Adam Johnson’s National Book Award-winning short stories -- to hurriedly defect from North Korea, he acclimates quickly enough to the modern comforts of the South. He even changes his name to something hip-sounding, something with that Gangnam air of exportable cool: DJ. He doesn’t know that the letters carry meaning other than a shortened version of his given name until a South Korean teen explains it to him: “The DJ, he’s a kind of artist. He takes different kinds of music , you know, funky and strange and old-fashioned, even bad music you wouldn’t normally like. Then he mixes it all together. That mix, that’s the DJ’s brand, that’s who he is.”
Contemporary South Korean mash-up culture, with its warring influences of fast food joints and traditional, uniformed school kids, is simultaneously alluring and off-putting to DJ, who’s mostly thankful to no longer rely on unscrupulous acts -- printing and selling lottery tickets with no winner among them -- in order to eat each night. He feels indebted to his close friend and mentor Sun-ho, who got caught up in the last-minute act of defecting, and who isn’t as enthusiastic about his new home as DJ.
Johnson writes about their relationship, and the brutal beauty of their previous lives in North Korea, in the third-person. Necessarily, he observes from a distance, and so his characterization of the place and its people is almost clinical. Through DJ he brings harsh North Korean winters to life in scenes peopled by women in fur coats and students full of naive hope about their country’s future. But each scene glistens with the sheen of globalization, with references to wealthy Gangnam and greasy burgers. Sun-ho’s reverence of centuries-old patriotic music wraps these details in a thin foil; his character never feels warmly realized, but instead works as a composite of imagined beliefs meant to generate empathy for the North. As a peek into a place we seldom hear much about beyond bold, trumpeted headlines, it’s an interesting read.
The titular story of Johnson’s collection isn’t the only one in which the author works as a sort of mashup artist, expertly weaving together experiences outside of his own. In “Interesting Facts,” a dying woman explains that she feels like a ghost, either because she actually is one, or because her husband and children have emotionally drifted away from her since her cancer diagnosis -- it's up to the reader to determine which interpretation is accurate.
Here Johnson, whose wife is a writer and breast cancer survivor, breaks from the narrative to offer pithy pop culture commentary. Why is it, his female narrator asks, that in Hallmark movies it’s the dead wife’s job to grant her husband permission to move on? It’s a thoughtful and affecting question, but again, one that might be more warmly explored by a writer who's experienced its effects more directly. Instead, the narrator of “Interesting Facts” is a mash-up of the insecurities she airs to her lovingly dopey husband -- her inner life is made up of little else.
There’s a similar character in the first story of Fortune Smiles, a woman whose persona is an assemblage of quirks and neuroses. She’s been hospitalized with Guillain-Barre, a rare syndrome that attacks the nervous system, and the outlook for her recovery is bleak. So, her incessant worry about her husband’s faithfulness overshadows her former individuality in what feels like an honest characterization of the emotional pain that accompanies illness. That it's narrated by her optimistic husband, who seeks solutions and solace from an AI he programed to mimic the speech of the recently assassinated president, makes the plot feel truer to Johnson’s style.
The husband in the story is an outsider looking in on a world he doesn't understand, the world of a permanently disabled woman. He does his best to piece together fragments of their conversations with conventional wisdom to make sense of her experience. The result is a little like a DJ set -- a synthesis of thoughtful originals combined to make something simultaneously more complex and less evocative.
The bottom line:
Johnson's short stories are an amusing, if sometimes clinical, peek inside seldom-explored worlds, from the depths of the inner lives of aging, terminally ill women to the oppressive yet beautiful corners of North Korea.
What other reviewers think:
The New York Times: "The men in these tales are so trapped by their situations that reading one story after another made me feel as if I had been locked in a room with six intense and unpredictable strangers, all starved for my attention. When comedy is applied to tragedy over and over, it can start to take on an element of defensiveness; cumulatively, it can feel as if Johnson is holding the reader at arm’s length by how cheery his darkness can be."
NPR: "This new collection, while not flawless, showcases Johnson's immense creativity and intelligence, and his admirers will find a lot to love in most of these six stories."
Who wrote it?
Adam Johnson is the author of the Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master's Son. He teaches English at Stanford University.
Who will read it?
Anyone interested in speculations about the near future, and how new technologies will impact the ways we connect on a human level.
"It's late, and I can't sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn't help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the president, because we often talk in whispers."
"DJ studied the losing ticket. He scratched away the remaining top coating and saw that South Korean tickets were different. If he had picked a diamond, a sapphire and an emerald, the card would have paid twenty thousand won. Every ticket was capable of winning if you played it right, which meant your fate was no one's but your own."
by Adam Johnson
Random House, $27.00
Published August 18, 2015
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