I’m still on a good reading streak (please, let it last!). A wide variety has helped. But though my recent books include a novel set in North Korea, a young adult fantasy, and a non-fiction book about a Victorian divorce case, it struck me that they all have themes in common: the connections and contradictions between privacy, identity, and narrative.
I am not sorry I read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which was on a lot of literary Best of 2012 lists. But I found it torture to finish–and perhaps that’s entirely appropriate for a North-Korea-set novel in which plenty of torture takes place. Something about the voice just wasn’t my thing. (Here’s my Goodreads review.) I found similarly absurdist portrayals of life in a totalitarian society in mysteries by James Church (North Korea) and Colin Cotterill (Laos) more human and engaging, if not as complex.
I did really like the reflections on how narrative can paradoxically both preserve or create identity and threaten people with complete loss of the privacy necessary for a sense of self. It’s telling that no one in the novel has a real name, a bedrock marker of identity. In the first section, Jun Do, the titular orphan master’s son, spends time on a ship listening to radio transmissions (a useless form of spying) and the stories of the sailors. As he listens to one of the Captain’s stories, he thinks:
Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack–if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.
I don’t think Jun Do wants to record the stories so he can file a report on the sailors (as everyone in North Korea is required to inform on their neighbors), but so he can hang on to some kind of truth in a world of propaganda–made-up stories that everyone must accept as real.
Later in the novel, Jun Do is interrogated by a nameless man who describes his work as collecting people’s biographies. The interrogator is conflicted about his work, I think. On the one hand, he says, “When you have the subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state.” People should have no will, desire, or identity outside of the state, and they wouldn’t be there for interrogation if they hadn’t failed in that ideal. Once their stories are “collected,” he erases their memories with electric shock and sends them off, he imagines, to a new life as happy peasant workers. At the same time, he wants to understand his subjects and know the truth about them. And he keeps trying to write his own biography, to understand and define himself.
Narrating stories both asserts an individual identity apart from the state and risks the loss of that identity, because once the story is “out there,” its hearers or readers can use it for their own purposes. This is ultimately what happens to Jun Do: in the second part of the novel, we get the story from his point of view, his interrogator’s, and the propaganda version that is broadcast over loudspeakers to the whole nation. It reminded me a little of Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers, which I read in December, and which also considers the need to protect private corners of the self from surveillance by the state.
The same tension between privacy and revelation is central to Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, which I am just finishing. Isabella Robinson recorded her affair with Edward Lane in her diary, a diary which her husband eventually found and used as the basis of his case against her in the brand new divorce court. In their defense, her lawyers and Lane’s argued that the diary recorded fantasies, not reality [and if you've read this, don't tell me if it works!]. As Summerscale explains,
Both Henry and Isabella had violated the boundary between the private and the public: Isabella by writing about Edward in her journal; Henry by reading and disseminating her secret words.
Is the diary a place for Isabella to record the truth about herself, to define herself as something other than an unhappy wife, or to create escapist fantasies? Summerscale puts this case in the context of Victorian anxieties and changing ideas about diary-writing, psychology, medicine, female sexuality, and marriage and women’s rights within it–and to end it. Henry Robinson had two illegitimate children, and sounds like a jerk, at least in Isabella’s diary. But his infidelities weren’t cause for divorce or disgrace. Hers were.
It’s an interesting book, but I don’t love it as much as I did Summerscale’s Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. That’s partly because Victorian detectives are one of my Things (I was delighted when Inspector Field, subject of an admiring Dickens essay and the model for Bucket in Bleak House, made a minor appearance here). But it’s also because that book has the narrative impetus of a mystery novel, and this one has, well, whiny miserable Isabella and her teenagery crushes on younger men. I pitied her, but she isn’t much fun.
Finally, I just finished Kristin Cashore’s YA fantasy Graceling on audio. I read and loved this when it first came out, and I found it just as good the second time. Yes, the twists didn’t surprise me, but I could see how well prepared-for they were. This story is very much about Katsa learning how to define her own identity and choose her own path in life rather than letting herself be defined by others. It’s about finding a balance between privacy and intimacy, too, but to say more about that would be a spoiler.
All of these books made me ponder the deep third person point of view that’s pretty standard in romance novels. Romances often delve into the most intimate of their characters’ feelings and actions, and I wonder if the intimate narrative point of view paradoxically keeps us from feeling like voyeurs, interrogators stripping the lovers of their privacy. I haven’t quite figured this out yet.