Just after I'd signed out The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson, I heard a piece on NPR about Blaine Harden's Escape from Camp 14; I signed that out as well, thinking the two books might complement each other, and the fictions of the one might be given grounding in the facts of the other.
The Orphan Master's Son feels like a combination of 1984 and Kafka's The Trial . . . and maybe some George Saunders and Jim Shepard thrown in for good measure. As a result of this reliance on absurdity-tinged satire, the kind of seriousness of purpose and historical horrors that ground a satire like 1984 get pushed to the background. Though Johnson uses real places and realistic actions, everything seems unreal, and even the utterly fact-based events—such as the random abductions of Japanese citizens—seem unbelievable. (In his non-fiction work, Harden mentions, in passing, these abductions, but so flatly that the air of absurdity which likely should accompany such actions is lost.)
This reader operated with the assumption that even the strangest things described were likely based in some reality, but Johnson provides no notes at the end to reinforce (or undo) such assumptions. I see that the reviewer for the NYTimes felt the absurdity undercut the book's horrors, but I understood that I'm seeing all events through the eyes of our poor maybe-not-an-orphan protagonist, who lives in a world in which he's pushed from one task to another without being consulted, and whose identity is the result of immediate external circumstances rather than an internally formed sense of oneself. Ironically, once he takes on the identity of a man he's murdered (it's like The Return of Martin Guerre, except it's clear that no one believes he's actually someone else), he begins to function with greater personal agency and find more ways to take control of his life.
The novel's structure is odd, in part because some of the novel is built of independently published shorter fiction. The seams show, but that works: the character doesn't have a traditional arc of development, but nevertheless, by the end, he has imposed a kind of continuity on his experiences and become more than the sum of what's befallen him. The sections in which the story seems to be narrated by the state radio network are the most awkward fit, as they turn the tale metafictional, but they're useful in giving the reader the sense that anyone's personal story in North Korea is merely fodder for whatever story the government wants to tell.
Toward the end—as the novel's linearity is turned inside out, the metanarrative becomes insistent, coincidences abound, and we meet a new protagonist—the story's drive becomes diffuse, and my interest lessened. But the book is quite successful, and I recommend it.
Escape from Camp 14, on the other hand, isn't terribly interesting. It's not the fault of the raw material—we're talking about a man born in a labor camp, knowing nothing of the outside world, and trained to betray everyone to the authorities, who manages to, through luck and perseverance, make an escape—but the writing, which is flat and unenergetic. Perhaps that's a consequence of dealing with the mundane, tedious nature of human evil, but the craziness of North Korean society and the Kim family in particular should have shaped this into a stranger tale than it allows itself to be. Partly it's a result of the prison-born Shin's constraints: he knows only his narrow world, which forces Harden to constantly step away from Shin's story to provide context and history. The book is pretty thin, and would have been better as a long piece in the New Yorker or The Atlantic, though the prose would have been ill-suited to either of those publications.
Johnson's novel, unlike Harden's book, manages to give one a richer sense of the madness of the Kims while also letting us enter more fully the mental processes of someone who is a victim of that madness—but then, that's in the nature of fiction, to give us access to what is otherwise inaccessible.