by David AbramsBuy on NOOK »
March 19, 2013
4The Fault in Our Stars
2The Orphan Master’s Son
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.
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By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: Upon reading Stefan Beck’s judgment, it seems as though we have our first victim of what I believe you originally coined as “the gravitas gap.” Two highly enjoyable books, one of which, for this reviewer, just reached for more (a country over a person) and was therefore judged the winner.
The gravitas gap is, I think, a function of us conducting our yearly colloquium as a “prize.” We’re looking for the best book, right? And ambition is often viewed as one of the criteria by which we judge these things. Degree of difficulty seems to matter. The most graceful swan dive in history isn’t going to best even a mediocre inward three-and-one-half with a twist.
I think Beck does a fantastic job of articulating both books’ successes. The Orphan Master’s Son had the potential to become wacky or antic, but it doesn’t fall prey to those pitfalls. At the same time, Hazel and Augustus could’ve pitched into the canyon of over-precociousness at any point. The comparison to True Grit is high praise indeed, and an insight that had me rethinking not only The Fault in Our Stars, but questioning Judge Beck’s judgment that The Orphan Master’s Son deserves the nod because of its more ambitious undertaking of constructing a country.
Because thinking about a novel like True Grit and a character like Mattie Ross, I’m not sure I can imagine a much bigger achievement in literature.
Kevin: I’m already on record as having loved both books, but in this matchup I couldn’t help thinking about the differences between these two authors, and a discussion that you and I have frequently at ToB time. Adam Johnson, of course, has an MFA from McNeese State. John Green has had an excellent education, but as a writer I think he’s mostly self-taught. You and I are similarly contrastable. Your MFA, in fact, was awarded in the same space/time as Johnson’s. I have taken one creative writing class in my life.
Not to get into a debate about the pros and cons of a graduate degree in creative writing, but it seems to me that The Orphan Master’s Son is the product of a person who has carefully studied a craft, thought concretely about its purpose, and spent many classroom afternoons and caffeine-propelled late nights among his peers dissecting every aspect of a story’s construction. I just don’t believe it’s a book that many people could write on instinct alone. I couldn’t write it. And when an author writes a book that I can easily grasp and appreciate, and yet I know I couldn’t produce myself, it’s a marvelous thing to admire. It’s art. It’s like a Degas to me.
This is not to dismiss John Green’s process in the least. Here’s an excerpt from an interview he did with the Atlantic in which he addresses the probably the most criticized aspect of The Fault in Our Stars—what we might now call the “Mattie Ross Effect”—the precociousness of his two main characters:
I will say that the people who say that Gus and Hazel come off as wise beyond their years are invariably adults. I’ve literally never heard that from a teenager—not just about these kids but about any kids in my books….
So, yeah, certainly, teenagers don’t sound that way when they talk to us. Like, they don’t sound that way *to us*. But they do sound that way to themselves. And that’s what interests me. I’m trying to capture that, because I’m not really interested in capturing how they actually sound, because that’s not their experience.
I think that’s a thoughtful and sophisticated response to that question, and satisfying to me because I didn’t have a good answer for why Hazel and Gus’s obviously affected voices felt “true” to me as a reader. I remember it now. When I was a teenager, I really thought I was that smart.
I’m sorry to see The Fault in Our Stars go. For now, at least. But I’m also pleased that we’ll be talking more about The Orphan Master’s Son.
John: You’ll let us know where John Green stands vis-à-vis the Zombie Round voting, but my hunch is he’ll be getting some positive news. I believe this because I was in my local Barnes & Noble the other day and saw that not only did John Green have his own dedicated end-cap display with all of his books (including a limited edition of The Fault in Our Stars), but a TFiOS commemorative T-shirt as well.
The only other T-shirt I could find in the entire store was for Angry Birds. If John Green is as popular as Angry Birds, he’s doing more than all right.
I’ve noted this phenomenon in past tourneys with other books and authors, but John Green doesn’t just have readers, he has fans. I know this because of the T-shirts, and also his Twitter and Vlogbrother followers (more than one million with the videos viewed over 300 million times!), and the fact that he’s a writer who can get people to pay money to hear him read/perform.
That’s David Sedaris territory.
Adam Johnson is about as successful as a “literary” writer can be. He was nominated for the NBCC fiction prize. He’s been in Best American Short Stories, had a Stegner Fellowship, and received both a Whiting Award and an NEA grant. He’s been on Charlie Rose for crying out loud!
I bet his readings are well attended. I know his readings are well attended, but I also know that he doesn’t get to charge 20 bucks for the privilege.
Kevin: If you don’t have 20 bucks and a time machine, you can watch John Green’s Carnegie Hall book party (with his brother Hank and The Mountain Goats) on YouTube. You and I both do readings of our work, John. Do people squeal with pleasure when your books are read aloud? People at my readings don’t squeal with pleasure. I mean we all have a good time. Often there’s a Q&A. Occasionally someone will bring a snack.
A couple weeks ago, in fact on the very day the Tournament of Books began its opening round with a match between The Fault in Our Stars and The Round House, I spoke about writing to a group of students at a massive suburban Chicago high school.
In the 11:00 hour I talked to about 200 kids in the auditorium. When I was done we did the question and answer. They were really tremendous kids and they paid close attention and they asked smart questions. Maybe they thought it was interesting that I made a living as a writer, but honestly they hadn’t heard of my books and didn’t particularly care who I was. And that’s the way it should be. When the bell rang, they clapped politely and filed out.
In the noon hour I spoke to a different group of 200 students. I gave about the same talk, and the Q&A was similar. Then with 10 minutes left a kid in the back grabbed the wireless mike that was being passed around and asked, “Do you know anybody famous?”
I paced back and forth on stage as I started thinking through the answer out loud. I know a lot of authors, but most authors aren’t really “famous” in the way that we think about fame in America. Did I know anyone that these kids would recognize as “famous?” And then I remembered our commentary in that day’s ToB in which I mentioned that my first novel came out the same week as John Green’s first novel and that we ran into each other a few times promoting those books. And so I just blurted out, “Do you guys know who John Green is?”
And there was this sound, the sound of 200 kids gasping and whispering with excitement. A whole auditorium of heads and shoulders shifted five inches higher in the seats. Someone shouted out “Can you introduce me?” and I immediately had to start backpedaling. I hadn’t seen John Green in years. But it didn’t matter. Cell phones came out, and kids started taking my picture. They wanted to know my Twitter handle. I had just watched a theater of teenagers change their estimation of me in an instant. I had become their one degree of separation from John Green. When the bell rang, instead of filing out to their next class, they formed a line to get my autograph in their spiral biology notebooks.
If I had told those kids I knew the mega-bestselling author Jodi Picoult (I do not) I would have seen hardly a shrug, and this apparently does not sit well with Jodi Picoult. There was an interesting interview with her in a recent issue of the Chicago Tribune Printers Row (a publication in which you have a regular column). In that conversation, Picoult explains that she is switching publishers in order to join a “higher echelon of name-brand writers.”
There are certain writers that readers know, and then there are certain writers that non-readers know. I never want to write like James Patterson or Janet Evanovich, either. But I think there’s room for a lot of different types of writers at the top. People know who Joyce Carol Oates is, whether they read her or not. It’s a matter of a slight tipping of the balance, a ubiquitousness, a recognition factor that this is someone who’s been in the business for a long time, and even if I don’t read her, I know who she is.
Jodi Picoult wants to be the kind of author who is well known to people who don’t read. She already has as many readers as just about any writer can have, and what she really wants now are fans.
I can hardly knock a writer for being frank about her ambitions, and once you top the bestseller lists I guess that’s the only place to go. It’s interesting that Picoult seems to want fame bestowed upon her like knighthood, which makes a weird kind of sense in a country where celebrity is a stand-in for royalty. It seems to me John Green earned his title more organically.
(Of course, to be fair, if that auditorium had been full of suburban book-club moms instead of teenagers, the Jodi Picoult effect would have been significant, and the John Green factor far less so.)
John: It’s human nature, or maybe the American nature, to want what we don’t have, even when what we already have is abundant. Off screen, you have heard me complain about all kinds of things regarding publishing and my particular place in it, approximately a gazillion rungs below either Jodi Picoult or John Green. But I am on the ladder, whereas a lot of people I’ve run across in my life who have more talent/ability/intelligence/good looks than I do have yet to achieve any success in the field, which makes me feel like an asshole when I do it, but do it I do.
This is another reason to admire the successes of both these authors. Adam Johnson’s previous book was published in 2003, with nine years in between it and The Orphan Master’s Son. That’s not a guy worried about his status in “publishingland.”
And John Green has turned himself into that star. No one anointed him the voice of a generation. He just figured out the ways in which his audience can be spoken to and continues to tell them things they find important. Is there really a higher calling than that?
Kevin: OK, housekeeping: The Orphan Master’s Son advances to take on the winner of tomorrow’s match between Chris Ware’s Building Stories and May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. (This upper bracket is loaded with books I am fond of, John.)
As for the Zombies (I’m going to try to build a little artificial, parenthetical suspense here), if that round were held today (and I know everyone will find this shocking, perhaps as shocking as the fact that Whitney Houston never fell in love with this guy, even after he sent her 70+ letters), the two books that received the most votes from readers among the novels that have been eliminated so far would be, in no particular order, Arcadia and The Fault in Our Stars.
That means, sadly, this is the end of the ToB road for Where’d You Go, Bernadette. But I’ll say one last time that you should read it. Lots of you. It’s great fun, and it’s also got a precocious kid in it, now that we all agree that we like that sort of thing.