Because the hardships of real life in North Korea, described by defectors, can be Kafkaesque in their surreal horror, it’s harder to tell in these pages where Mr. Johnson’s penchant for exaggeration leaves off … The Orphan Master’s Son employs the techniques of magical realism to create a hallucinatory mirror of day-to-day circumstances that in themselves dwarf the imagination … Mr. Johnson does an agile job of combining fablelike elements with vivid emotional details to create a story that has both the boldness of a cartoon and the nuance of a deeply felt portrait.
The Orphan Master’s Son is no more about North Korea than The Merchant of Venice is about Venice under the doges. North Korea is the setting for an imaginary story about a man who gradually, though always dramatically, discovers his own humanity in a state that does everything to suppress it … This is a fantasy, a fiction, a work of literary imagination. That the setting bears a strong resemblance to aspects of life in North Korea gives it an anchor in reality. And the cliché that fiction can cut to deeper truths than fact holds true of this novel too. It tells us something profound about the pathology of the totalitarian state.
Johnson’s novel, far from being too labyrinthine, is an ingeniously plotted adventure that feels much shorter than its roughly 450 pages and offers the reader a tremendous amount of fun. This isn’t entirely a compliment. Should ‘fun’ really be the first word to describe a novel about one of the worst places on earth?... Ultimately, the one rule of art is that you’re permitted anything you can get away with. I raise the question of responsibility with respect to The Orphan Master’s Son because the book itself seems to raise it, and because Johnson’s prodigious talent and inventiveness aren’t enough to silence it. Johnson’s very sense of duty may have been what led him astray.