Roy Kesey/Adam Johnson

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We’re pleased that our friend Roy Kesey, who did us the honor of providing the inaugural post in the Rec Room—the section of this site where writers recommend other writers’ work they particularly enjoy—chose (by sheer coincidence! honest! Roy had no idea!) the latest novel by Adam Johnson, an alum of the McNeese MFA program. Thanks, Roy!

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The Orphan Master’s Son (Random House 2012), by Adam Johnson.
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Roy Kesey says:

All works of fiction are, among other things, exercises in empathetic imagination. The purer that act of empathy – the bigger-hearted, the clearer-sighted – the better the fiction will be. Another question entirely: across what distance is that act enacted?

It is not the case that a greater gap between author and character (in terms of gender, say, or of race, or of age or religion or language or sexual orientation) makes automatically for a better book, but it does tend to impress us nonetheless. We nod solemnly in recognition of the sheer amount of work involved in getting the details right, and of the very circuswireness of the project, the author choosing exposure to accusations (often justified) of artistic colonization (or worse) as a fair price for the pleasure of stretching, stretching, as far as one might. And/but what if in a given case empathetic imagination gives access to (almost) the only type of knowledge (if we can call it that and I say we can) of whatever sort (geographical, cultural, linguistic) available to a given set of readers?

There are no longer very many places in this wikified world of which that can reasonably be said, but Adam Johnson found one, and has given us a perfectly paced, psychologically acute, delicate and violent portrayal of it. Exactly how representative is his hero, Jun Do, of all the real-life North Korean tunnel-warfare expert/state-sponsored kidnapper/orphan/linguist/sailor/diplomat/taekwondo champion/radiographers out there? I hope never to know. But Johnson has crucial things to show us about the mapping of narrative onto life and vice versa – that is, about the relationships between and amongst pain and truth and fear and hope – and I am grateful to have been carried so far so fast so well.

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Roy Kesey‘s most recent book is the novel Pacazo (USA: Dzanc Books, 2011; UK & Commonwealth: Random House 2012), which The Times has praised as “big, intelligent and wonderfully original.” His previous books include the award-winning novella Nothing in the World, a historical guide to the Chinese city of Nanjing, and a short story collection called All Over, which made The L Magazine‘s “Best Books of the Decade” list. His short stories, essays, translations and poems have appeared in more than a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and New Sudden Fiction. He is the recipient of a 2010 prose fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and currently lives in Peru with his wife and children.