Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that it’s January. Your pipes are frozen. You haven’t showered in three days. The heating element in your dryer is fried, forcing you to drive to Walmart in an undershirt and swim trunks to buy a pack of clean underwear. Then your Tournament selections arrive—and they aren’t, it seems, going to transport you to Cabo San Lucas or South Padre Island at peak sexuality-exploring season. Instead, you’ll get to choose between a children’s hospital and a North Korean prison mine.
Sadistic joke? No, unexpected blessing. Not only did John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son make my problems look like cupcakes and apple juice; they were also two of the most entertaining books I’ve read in ages. Each has a pretty well-defined target audience—Fault is YA lit designed to make brainy teens cry themselves to sleep, while Orphan is brainy spy lit designed to make middle-aged Stratfor subscribers drink themselves to death. Their appeal is far wider than that.
Fault is narrated by Hazel, a teen thyroid cancer survivor whose treatment for depression (a side effect not of cancer but “of dying,” as Hazel deadpans in our first taste of her hardboiled outlook) includes grudging participation in a support group. There she meets Augustus, who lost a leg to osteosarcoma and keeps an unlit cigarette in his mouth to “put the killing thing between [his] teeth” without giving it “the power to do its killing.” The star-crossed duo falls in love over the course of 300 pages, Hazel reluctantly, Augustus less so. They share a passion for reading, and embark on a quest to fulfill Hazel’s wish, to track down a reclusive novelist and find out what happens after the mid-sentence ending of his book An Imperial Affliction, Hazel’s favorite, about a child with cancer.
An author’s conception of what precocity looks like can be grating—see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—but Hazel and Augustus, with their sarcasm (Augustus calls losing a leg “an excellent weight-loss strategy”), tough-minded philosophizing, and occasional vulnerability, are terrific. Hazel put me in mind of Mattie Ross, the heroine of Charles Portis’s True Grit, not because they’re both young, flinty, and female, but because their voices make you forget that someone invented them. Green’s genius is to make Hazel sound superficially like a teenager (her cancer-ruined lungs, e.g., “suck at being lungs”) but mostly like an individual, with personality and interiority, fear and love, and vast reserves of wonder and gratitude.
Green shows the adult world in its variety and complexity, too. Some of his finest scenes depict Hazel at odds with her parents and, in the spirit of Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn, with her author/quarry. The grownups aren’t one-dimensional buffoons. Their pain is real and Hazel must wrestle with it, as when she overhears her mom voicing the fear that, after Hazel’s death, she “won’t be a mother anymore.”
It’s all too easy for a YA writer to put kids in horrible situations, but Fault is a nightmare recollected in good faith. Having spent the better part of my teen years with a terminally ill friend, I couldn’t read this book, and its descriptions of humiliating physical frailty, without feeling that it’s never too early to teach your children about life’s fragility and transience.
Green had to negotiate tragedy without being maudlin or manipulative. Adam Johnson, in his phantasmagoric journey to North Korea, had to tell his tale while avoiding the merely sensational or lurid. His hero, Pak Jun Do, is an everyman—Jun Do being a homonym for “John Doe”—raised by an official in charge of orphans, who may or may not have been his father. He’s groomed to kidnap foreigners and to eavesdrop on foreign transmissions, but, after a diplomatic mission gone wrong, he’s packed off to a prison mine. In a contrived but satisfying twist, Martin Guerre by way of a martial arts movie, Jun Do murders a powerful man, steals his identity, and courts his unhappy wife, the propaganda-film actress Sun Moon.
The plot of Orphan is too byzantine to describe in even twice the space I have here, but that’s just as well. The less you know going in, the more thrilling the ride—and, in any case, the plot is but a small part of what makes this book so mind blowing.
I don’t know whether Johnson gets North Korea “right.” He has, at least, visited the Hermit Kingdom, interviewed defectors, and conducted a staggering amount of research. Yet, even if the book is exaggerated or inaccurate in some particulars, it captures the ugly spirit of a place ruled by secrecy, mythomania, and brutality. Johnson also does something daring, something I hadn’t expected (especially given the Oprah endorsement on the cover): He mines the North Korean nightmare for comedy, albeit of the coal-black variety, and makes the DPRK look ridiculous as well as evil. Whether it’s the Greek chorus supplied by propaganda loudspeakers, the disastrous diplomatic mission to a Texas ranch, or the Dear Leader’s dialogue,Orphan earns more laughs than most books actually trying to be funny.
Making this kind of humor work in a novel that also includes harrowing accounts of torture, blood harvesting, and starvation is a balancing act. Johnson’s control is superb. His characters are the perfect mix of alien and sympathetic, their souls unbowed even by a lifetime of lies. Johnson often uses distinctly American-sounding words or idioms—at one point, a character calls his superior “Sarge”—that give his prose the feel of a slightly tin-eared translation. This imparts a sense that one is hearing a true story, that he’s privy to a smuggled communiqué or desperate transmission from hell on earth.
I loved both of these books, but I had no difficulty coming to a decision. Part of my enjoyment of Fault came from relief that kids by the thousands are reading a book like this; I couldn’t wait to make sure my nieces had heard of Green. But I felt the urge to tell perfect strangers about Orphan. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that attempted so ambitious, even hubristic an effort of imagination and pulled it off. It isn’t to diminish Green’s achievement to say that where he imagined a person, Johnson constructed an entire country. The Orphan Master’s Son gets my vote.