After no Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded last year, people who care about such things worried that it could happen again. Instead this novel set in North Korea was recognized for 2013, one of a few awards it’s garnered so far. Initially I wasn’t too intrigued by the reviews, but I guess I was swayed by the accolades.
The first part of the book is the biography of a citizen named Jun Do (which is purposefully similar to that appellation for people lacking identities) and is a pretty straightforward narrative of his life, and that life is mostly him being coerced into various acts against his will while trying to maintain some semblance of idealism. I think the best scenes are when he is monitoring radio signals from a fishing boat, particularly the mystery of one recurring yet fleeting transmission he can’t quite pinpoint and the transmissions of two American women who are separately rowing across the ocean.
The second part transitions into a related story that is told in turns by an interrogator who sees his job as collecting people’s stories before they are removed to their next life, a state-narrated version of one of his current cases as heard through the loudspeakers that are found in homes and businesses throughout the country, and then a general third-person perspective much like the one in the first part of the book. Here the pace slows incredibly, and the longer the chapters pile on, the more I felt like the setting of North Korea was too treacherous to maintain believably. Johnson spent a week visiting there as part of his research, but it feels like a fiction woven over impressions rather than extensive knowledge. After a while the dialogue between characters sounds too American to be theoretically translated from Korean, and it’s difficult not to question the motives behind the novel. The sometimes goofy humor, especially around the character of Kim Jong-il, strips away too much of any power of authenticity in the stories of desperation — for instance, the contrast of the scene where Jong-il starts wondering earnestly about whether Stockholm syndrome could really exist to the scene of the characters in a prison mine who struggle to find enough to eat, darting to a freshly burnt-out lightbulb to collect all the dead moths beneath.
Readers curious to explore North Korea in a non-fictional manner may be better off with Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, based on the stories of six defectors.