distopiae

orphan master's sonI woke up on Sunday to a cold, rainy day, nixing my plans to do the first round of planting in my garden. Instead, I stayed inside and read all day. After I finished Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son — a novel about a young man’s many careers under the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il — I took a quick walk to the D.C. public library’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial branch to pick up a book on hold for me, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.

Although I’m not a huge fan of the YA genre, I haven’t been purposefully avoiding the novel — as I generally did with Harry Potter, for instance, the faux Latin of which set my teeth on edge. (I initially experienced a similar dread with the name of the country in The Hunger Games, Panem, but that’s where the Latin ended — and that reference was A) actually Latin and B) appropriate to the circumstance.)

I’d heard great things about Collins’s novel from people whose opinions I trust, and I even gave the book to my sister-in-law for Christmas last year based on those opinions. It was the hype around the movie — and the racism by its purported fans that it engendered — that finally piqued my curiosity. And the book was worth the wait: I read it straight through, finishing in a few hours by Sunday night.

My first reaction as I started reading, though, was, “Didn’t I just finish a novel about a central state government that tries to control its citizens in a society of a reality at odds with ideology?” And so I had, and so here I am, reviewing the two seemingly disparate novels together.

They certainly give each other a run for their money in terms of being disturbing — but also in being compelling. Many of the books I’ve been reading lately have managed to be suspenseful despite telling a story with a foregone conclusion (as for example here and here), and The Orphan Master’s Son was a complete break with that trend. I really had no idea what was going to happen next, much as the hapless denizens of the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the book. (Well, I had the tiniest inkling from the outset, but I had no clue how Johnson could possibly get there.) Pak Jun Do, the orphan who isn’t, climbs through his impossibly regimented society, going from the backwater Chongjin to the capital Pyongyang as army tunneler, state kidnapper, naval intelligence officer, and finally the prestigious Minister of Prison Mines. Through the 1982-esque propaganda that works indefatigably to make the “Dear Leader” seem like the greatest leader of the greatest nation on earth, it takes a lot of blood and torture to get Jun Do across the country and its class divide; Johnson’s work is not for the squeamish.

The Hunger Games also manages suspense despite the fact that a reader has to expect that a narrator of a to-the-death battle royal is likely going to make it out alive. The Buffy-like protagonist Katniss Everdeen makes a journey similar to that of Jun Do, from her home in District 12, the furthest outpost of the country Panem (which rose from the ruins of North America), to its capital. And she also takes on a new identity, as a competitor in the annual death match.

Side note: Regarding the “controversy” of casting black actors in the movie roles, I just about burst out laughing when Katniss explains, on her train trip to the Capitol, that it “was built in a place once called the Rockies.” I have family in Denver and spent many a summer there and environs, and my cousin and I regularly remark on how homogeneously white Colorado is. (Of course, that reminds me of one of my favorite Tracy Jordan lines ever.) Panem isn’t that different from North America, which means that people of color in the future probably live in the worst parts of that country, too. So astute readers shouldn’t have been at all shocked that a contestant from an outlying district, furthest from the prosperous Capitol, would be black. (Based on the book, the real surprise should have been that Katniss is played by a white actress, although I suppose not really in the whitewashing of Hollywood casting.) Then again, readers who can’t understand that “satiny brown skin” denotes a person of color are pretty much idiots.

Collins’s story is a little easier to take, despite that the fact that it features teenagers killing each other for sport. This is partly because Katniss is an unequivocal hero, pure in heart and deed: Collins carefully constructs the narrative so that Katniss kills only indirectly or with complete justification. The reader has to root for her, especially against the backdrop of the depravity of the other competitors — and of the society itself; indeed, Panem’s televised games were ostensibly established as punishment for rebellion against the Capitol, but it seems clear that entertainment was just as important a factor. Likewise, the extreme control in the DPRK stems from banal pandering to Kim’s ego, and Jun Do’s battering at the whims of the Dear Leader is in the main heartbreaking (although it stands to reason that a character in a “grown-up” novel might be more nuanced.)

Both societies are of course meant to be horrifying. But there are uncomfortable similarities with our own. Collins makes this clear by locating Panem in the not-so-distant future; she’s also stated that she drew inspiration for the novel while channel surfing, switching between a competition-based piece of reality TV and coverage of the invasion of Iraq, when the two “began to blur in this very unsettling way.”

The hallmark of Johnson’s DPRK is the contrast between what is said and what is done — which dissonance I’ve been thinking about in the U.S. recently, especially as it relates to motherhood. Pundit Hilary Rosen caused a firestorm a few weeks ago with comments about Ann Romney’s work as a homemaker. Taking the cake for dumbest “controversy” of the election season so far, Rosen’s statement and its aftermath led to an endless series of inane responses lionizing the work of mothers (as if Rosen, a parent of two, were somehow unaware of her own role). But the truth is that we as a society don’t in any way value motherhood — or more accurately, all mothers — in the way we love to claim we do, as Katha Pollitt so trenchantly articulates. The doublespeak on this and many other issues do the Dear Leader proud.

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