When I see blurbs from reviews on novels I generally take them with a grain of salt, – unless the reviewer is either an author I love or Michiko Kakutani – but I cannot help but be amused or sometimes annoyed by them, particularly when they are one word. Perhaps in my mind there are two quite damning instances of these one word blurbs used to sell books en masse, the first being the ostentatious amount of press for Dave Egger’s The Circle, which I am still trying to recover from in order so that I may actually want to read Eggers again, and the second being the bold type, HILARIOUS on the top of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. If your one word take on The Pale King is simply that it was funny, then you need to read a bit deeper. But in all honesty I don’t really know why I am going on about one word reviews in relation to Fortune Smiles. It contains none of these often misleading review blurbs, yet in my mind it is the first that, as complex as it is, actually earns one of these. More than anything, Fortune Smiles is bold. Which I do believe is saying something – though I know that word is overused – because until now, I don’t think I knew what it meant to write boldly. Yet within a paragraph of Nirvana, the opening story in the collection, I was hooked on both the writing style and what Johnson was managing to do.
Like all the stories in the collection, Nirvana is obsessed with trauma. In this case, the story is that of a Linux developer who’s wife is stricken with a disease that has paralyzed her from the neck down. Neither of them really understand how to deal with the pain it causes her, so they delve into different ways of miscommunication with one another. He develops a software that projects a life size hologram of the President – an unnamed President who in this universe has been assassinated recently – that communicates with him in a pseudo-authentic way. Johnson’s ability to write the lines of the President and make them both humorous and devastating is really what makes Nirvana work so well. Meanwhile, the man’s wife listens to Nirvana all day to navigate the lyrics of Kurt Cobain. As she begins talking more candidly about suicide and then wants a baby so that she will feel she was of some use to the world, the couple finally begins to come to terms with the fact that it is not her physical pain that neither of them can cope with, it is the mental trauma of feeling trapped forever inside a body that doesn’t work.
Nonc is a UPS driver who, after Hurricane Katrina, began looking after his son when his ex-girlfriend disappears. This story is one that once it is over you are unsure if it is hopeful or depressing, the answer hinging upon whether or not Nonc is actually going to return or if he will be pulled along into the flow of life elsewhere by his now partner Relle. Perhaps the best moment of the story, and a unquestionable triumph of Johnson’s writing, is a moment between Nonc and his father in which the two express genuine love and care for one another despite what can be described as having had a turbulent relationship. The ability to write sincere love and joy is one of the most difficult aspects to develop in writing, that Johnson does it and makes it feel so momentous and easy is nothing short of breathtaking.
After reading Interesting Facts I bothered to do some research as the story felt deeply biographical, or at least it felt so bewildering that Johnson was clearly a character in his own story that I had to know why. This is a fictionalized first-person account of Johnson’s wife’s battle with cancer, though in this account she really didn’t make it. In this way, this is Johnson’s most Saunders-esque story, told from the perspective of someone who may or may not be a ghost. What makes the story so bold is that even of a cancer patient Johnson avoids any and all cliche, even in moments of bitterness. Instead he opts to require something of the main character, his fictionalized wife. Her character continues to grow throughout the novel, but not really in a way that has much to do with the cancer despite the fact we hear about it on nearly every page. It is a feat to behold, but he does it so effortlessly that it’s easy to miss.
George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine
It’s difficult to decide which story in Fortune Smiles is the best, and I think it says more about the quality of the stories in the collection than anything else that I have yet to see any sort of agreement on which story is the strongest, but for my money, “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” is the best found in the collection. Partly this is due to how well it captures a political climate in which both sides understand what truth is in extremely different way while simultaneously completely discounting the other side’s version of it. It is the story of a retired prison warden whose prison was shut down when the Berlin Wall fell. While those around him believe he lives in a fantasy world constructed by the falsities necessarily created by his mind to deal with the atrocities he supervised, the reality of his life is far from that. In general he is at a loss for what everyone around him sees as his past and present, as he seems to believe that all of it is some massive plot of lies and miscommunication. All of these themes come together in a tour he attends of the old prison in which he argues and debates the veracity of the claims of the tour guide, including what constitutes torture. While most of the story is dialogue, it is a masterpiece of storytelling, layered and deeply meaningful.
More than anything else, “Dark Meadow” is bold. It’s more disturbing and frightening than anything Stephen King has penned. It is more exciting and heart-pounding than any Dennis Lehane novel. If the function of a story is to expand empathy and consciousness, then “Dark Meadow” is likely Mount Rushmore, but it’s not something you necessarily ever want to return to. It’s the story of a man who was molested as a child and ends up trafficking in child pornography and trying to deal with and defeat his monstrous self. It’s deeply uncomfortable to even write this small blurb about the story, so to imagine Adam Johnson writing this is one of reasons the story is so good. The depth and empathy a person has to have to write a character that is as dynamic and complex as the man in “Dark Meadow” is astounding. The story is as disturbing and simply as “messed-up” as stories come, but it’s also one that pulls your eyes open whether you would like them to be open or not.
“Fortune Smiles” is one of those stories that you’re never really sure is going to actually turn out to be good or not. More than anything it’s a character driven piece, and while the characters are good, what’s at stake doesn’t have much ability to follow stories like “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” and “Dark Meadow.” Johnson and J.J. Abrams have a lot in common as story tellers, usually relying on a “mystery box” to serve as a sort of McGuffin to drive everything. Yet in “Fortune Smiles” when the mystery box is opened it’s just not as interesting as in previous stories. There’s no doubt that Johnson has a remarkable understanding of Korean culture and the juxtaposition of North and South, but for the most part this story simply made me want to track down The Orphan Master’s Son so that I could have the full experience of Johnson writing on North Korea.
Fortune Smiles is the best story collection I’ve ever read, bar none. It’s one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had this year.
Recommended to: It’s the easy-going prose of Vonnegut with the disturbing creative powers of McCarthy, while everyone should read it at some point in their life, you need to be mentally prepared for the questions you’re going to have to ask yourself. In that sense, it is one of the most difficult reads a person could have despite being compulsively readable.
Avoid as if it’s giving a Wal-Mart Gift Card for Christmas: Some people should just buy this book immediately, others would be bothered by it for weeks, try to know which one you are.