A good, at times great, collection of short stories, and despite its problems, it’s one of the best to come out in a long time. Skip it at your peril.
New York: Random House, 2015.
As of this past week, Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson’s latest book, won 2015’s National Book Award for fiction. This is no small achievement, and I suppose the proverbial trophy (do they get a trophy?—let’s assume they do) can go up on the shelf next to his 2013 Pulitzer Prize for The Orphan Master’s Son (2012). The guy’s only written a handful of books so far, and he’s already come home with the National and the Pulitzer. Not a bad way to get things started. Not bad at all.
I was in the process of reading the short story collection when I heard the surprising news that it had won the National. I mean, I knew it was on the short list, which is one reason I chose to read the book in the first place. I also hadn’t picked up a short story collection in a while, so I figured I’d give it a shot. But, until that news came through, I had been enjoying my reading, taking notes and developing my opinions about it in my usual, objective way. Once I heard about the award though, I found myself in quite a pickle. Now that the book had won, I felt the need to write a good review of it. Who writes a negative or even a middling review of a book that wins the National? A troll? (But I don’t wanna’ be a troll!)
I suppose part of being an unbiased reviewer is navigating minefields such as these. Oh well. Here we go.
When taken as an entire collection, Fortune Smiles is a rather mixed bag. Some of the stories in this collection are wonderful—the work of a writer who has mastered his craft. “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” is now on the list of my favorite short stories ever, right up there with Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation,” Joyce’s “Araby” and “the Dead,” and Tim O’Brien’s famous collection The Things They Carried. The titular story “Fortune Smiles” is also quite wonderful for its look into the North Korean psyche, and it sees Johnson tapping some of the same magic he used for The Orphan Master’s Son. These two stories in particular are masterfully executed, and they are among the few short stories I have ever read where I wanted there to be more, where I simply didn’t want the stories to end. As for the rest, well, that wasn’t always the case.
Though Johnson touches on many issues in this collection, the key theme tying all of these stories together is loss and the possible futures people envision in response to it. These stories are so varied, however, and follow so many different emotions and experiences, that it’s difficult to tie them all together with a single thread. Still, “Nirvana” explores how a couple uses technology to cope after a wife is paralyzed by a degenerative disease. “Hurricanes Anonymous” is set in Lake Charles, LA, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have passed through, and looks at a UPS driver who must now take care of a son he barely knew and, in the process, choose a new life for himself. “Interesting Facts” is told from the perspective of Johnson’s wife, after an ordeal with breast cancer (I won’t say more about this one because it would spoil the narrative progression). “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows a former Stasi prison warden in the present, as he tries to prove to the world he didn’t do anything wrong—that his prison was a place of order and discipline, but never torture. “Dark Meadow” is about a man who was raped as a boy and is torn by his own pedophilic tendencies as a result. And, finally, “Fortune Smiles” concerns a pair of North Korean defectors who are trying to find their way in Seoul, where they feel as though they have stepped a thousand years out of the past.
These short, one sentence summaries don’t do justice to the complexity and emotional weight each of these stories carries, but they should indicate the stunning breadth of the collection. Johnson shines a light upon these disparate corners of the human experience, and in the process, he creates a surprisingly full picture of the ways we all cope with loss, whether that loss is of our own personal identities, our families, our pasts, our senses of self-worth, or our connections to reality and society as we understand them. In some ways, this book demonstrates the best of what a short story can do—it uses small windows into specific occurrences to speak to the larger issues that dominate the human condition.
The downside of such a focus, however, is that the tone of the stories tends to be rather dark across the board. Johnson doesn’t find ways to focus on loss that end happily. In fact, the style of each of the stories has that same homogenous, thoughtful voice that dominates most serious writing today. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that MFA voice— a wistful, slightly contemplative narrative tone that goes with berets, cigarettes, too much black coffee, and a general state of ennui because the writer has seen too much of life at the ripe old age of 25. That voice in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Again, that’s the dominant style of storytelling these days, especially from writers who have gone through the creative writing system. But, I think this collection would have benefited from even a slight variation from that norm. Even though each of the stories is told from the viewpoints of vastly different characters, their voices are all the same. The collection’s title implies that all events have two sides, two natures that aren’t easily separable. When the god Fortune, or Fortuna, smiled, it could be joyous or sinister; such a smile could bring success or disaster. Despite this title, however, the stories here tend to sound and end in ways that are a bit too similar for my tastes, and the collection as a whole suffers for it.
Still, despite this similarity in style, the stories themselves have good pacing, and enough new elements are introduced in them to keep a reader interested. Oddly enough, the two slowest stories are the first two in the collection, “Nirvana” and “Hurricanes Anonymous.” As a whole, the latter half of this collection is by far the better, so if you’re struggling to get into it up front, bear with it until these stories are over (though, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend skipping them). These first two stories struggle for reasons that are connected to the genre of short story writing in general. The first is that “Nirvana” is less of a story and more an impression of an experience. There isn’t a clear narrative arch to it, and in the end, it doesn’t go anywhere meaningful, especially when compared to the other stories in the collection. While some people appreciate that style of shorty story writing, I find it pretty frustrating. Giving an impression of an experience is like writing the set up for a joke and never getting around the punch line. To be fair, some stories work quite well that way (most of Chekhov’s work comes to mind). In my opinion, “Nirvana” isn’t one of them. “Hurricanes Anonymous,” especially as one of the longest stories in the collection, just doesn’t jump out and grab the reader the way Johnson’s other stories do. It meanders when it should sprint, dodges when it should punch, and as a result, the story itself seems like it ends because it needs to, rather than because it has reached some meaningful conclusion. Length, rather than content, seems to have decided that particular story’s fate.
However, despite these early flaws, one of the most impressive parts of this collection is in the amount of detail work Johnson puts in. If the devil was in the details here, readers would never know it. Johnson is no slouch when it comes to research, and his experience working on The Orphan Master’s Son definitely shines through. The number of little details, tiny references to ideas, behaviors, and memories characters would have in each of these situations are what bring these stories to life. Rather than bogging down the narrative, as a less experienced writer might do, Johnson uses strategic placement of these small details to give his stories weight and a clear sense of belonging in their given settings. I can’t think of another short story collection I have ever read where I felt more deeply connected to the characters’ personal situations and experiences. This is quite an achievement for a collection such as this, especially since a few of these stories require readers to step into worlds far removed from their own. This removal could be geographical, like that of North Korean defectors in South Korea, or social, like the moral and ethical struggles of man who is addicted to child pornography (or is he?).
Yet, sometimes this detail work goes a bit over the top, and the narrative suffers because of it. As an example, in “Hurricanes Anonymous,” Nonc (the main character) is sitting in a bar attempting to get some information about his son’s mother, who has gone missing, when the bartender doesn’t like that he hasn’t ordered anything to drink:
He asks, “What’ll it be,” and when Nonce says, “Nothing thanks,” the bartender raps the bar twice with his knuckle, which is what riverboat dealers do to point out a lack of gratuity.
Is this explanation of the practice supposed to be in Nonc’s head? If so, it would be a strange thing to think, since Nonc is a native and would know this already. It’s clearly aimed at the reader, but the way it’s presented breaks the narrative style and tone. If you have to stop and explain the little detail that is supposed to give your story life and character, perhaps the little detail isn’t all that necessary. Plus, there are any number of other ways that explanation could have been handled without such an intrusive narrative break. For instance, Nonc could have said, “No tip until I get answers.” The same idea gets across, but without such an overbearing narrative intrusion. And yes, while this is only a small issue, it points to a larger problem, namely that Johnson doesn’t always seem comfortable with the narrative voices in these stories. Moments like these, where his discomfort is displayed through the narrative style, happen more often than I’d like, especially in a collection that, overall, is of such high quality.
In the end, while Fortune Smiles is a solid collection, I can’t help but wonder if it won the National because it stands upon the shoulders of The Orphan Master’s Son. It wouldn’t be the first time a hold-over like that has led to another award for a second book, especially if the award committee felt like they missed the boat the first time around. Since Johnson revisits his Korean material in “Fortune Smiles,” I can’t help but wonder if this was the case. And, as my review above shows, even I couldn’t help but use it as a touch point for much of what I had to say about this collection. Still, regardless of the award and if it was deserved or not (I really don’t have a strong opinion on that), Fortune Smiles is a good, at times great, collection of short stories, and despite its problems, it’s one of the best to come out in a long time. Skip it at your peril.