The 2012 release of The Orphan Master’s Son, primarily set in North Korea, painted a portrait of an embattled country and its people in such a vivid and insightful manner that it must have been written by an author with ties to the region. Adam Johnson was born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona and by all visible accounts, has lived a relatively American-centric life. He had released one short story collection and a novel previously, but had never garnered significant praise or relevance within the literary world. The Orphan Master’s Son lifted him from obscurity to say the least, as he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his captivating novel that he spent six years researching before writing the first draft. Following up a novel that is on many lists of best fiction released this century is not an easy task. His soon-to-be-released collection, Fortune Smiles, will be read much differently than his award winning novel due to the scrutinizing microscope and expectations of greatness.
Short story collections are experiencing a comeback in recent years, and many critically acclaimed novelists are releasing them as a sort of treat to hold over impatient readers and to remain relevant in literary discussions during the gaps between their full length works. There are very few dedicated short story writers in modern fiction that achieve the level of praise and attention as novelists. Within that small group, there is a pyramid, and at the very top one writer stands alone. His name is George Saunders, and he is the most innovative and imaginative fiction writer working today, novelists included. After reading Fortune Smiles, it is with mild trepidation that I concede that the top of the pyramid now has company. Saunders is a master of short fiction, and Adam Johnson has just established himself as the writer who is not only in sight of Saunders, but dangerously close to matching him. Fortune Smiles is comprised of six longish stories ranging from around forty to eighty pages a piece. They range in thematic scope, region and time period to create a auspicious whole that is the sum of a half dozen wonderfully unique parts.
Opening with “Nirvana,” a story that follows the meaning of its title through the tireless pursuit of a transcendental state of mind while also using the band Nirvana, and the late Kurt Cobain, as a thematic device. Set in the not so distant future, a brilliant computer programmer is in the midst of struggling to understand his wife’s rare illness that keeps her bed ridden and immobile. The narrator invents a device that will likely be similar to real life technology in the future, that creates an artificial intelligence projection that is capable of having a conversation. The few drawbacks of this invention are cleverly used by Johnson to establish resonance. It is a story about struggling with life’s challenges illustrated by the technological capabilities that allow the dismantled couple to connect and hold onto the past. It uses the subject of citizen owned drones as a plot convention which has already become a topic of discussion in America today. “Nirvana” won the Sunday Times short story prize after its initial release, and placing it at the forefront of this collection lures the reader in and gives promises of great fortunes for those who carry on. Most impressively, Popular Mechanics had an artificial intelligence expert examine the story and it was concluded that it was technically sound and plausible.
Futuristic tech themes roll over into “Dark Meadow” which is an unsettling look at the travesty of child pornography, narrated by a man who knows of this topic all too well from his own childhood which influenced his line of work. He is an expert programer and hacker who focuses most of his time on tracking the whereabouts of child pornography and fighting it in his own unique way. The road to recovery from past traumas weighs heavily on him and it ends up being a tale of acceptance, understanding, and facing past terrors that can never be forgotten, but can at least be subdued.
“Interesting Facts” is just that. Some of them reveal the real life identities of the couple in the story, but it is not the fact that it is at least a somewhat autobiographical story that proves most intriguing. Johnson takes a dangerous step into rarely traveled territory by writing in the first person perspective of his wife, Stephanie. The hints are present throughout, but there is one specific reference that removes all doubt that the narrator is Johnson’s wife. There are themes of disease and loss in all of these stories, but this one is more personal, as his wife is a cancer survivor. “Interesting Facts” appears to be a therapeutic exercise for Johnson as he tries to imagine what his wife went through that becomes a declaration of the power of love and the importance of empathy.
The final three stories are the most reminiscent of The Orphan Master’s Son. “Hurricane’s Anonymous” takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Johnson accompanied UPS drivers for several days delivering packages in order to factually represent the delivery process which is a focal point in the story. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” we are introduced to a former prison warden of East Germany before the country was united by the destruction of the wall. He is forced to confront his past transgressions when he receives a series of packages as symbolic reminders of how the past cannot be undone. Despite his opposition to acknowledge his mistakes, there are some that were swept into the turmoil and will never forget his atrocities. It speaks to the way that often times people who do bad things are able to move on and live their lives even as the affected live each day with constant awareness and recollection. A fitting end and the title story, “Fortune Smiles” takes readers back to the place where Adam Johnson’s vibrant voice was recognized on a large scale. Two defectors from Pyongyang flee to Seoul which should be a reason for rejoicing, but the ones left behind are constantly present in their thoughts.
Six diverse stories come together to form one remarkable book. From his incredibly accurate use of technology for thematic reverence to the personal touch implemented by his own life experiences, he has created a book that has the capability of appealing to a wide variety of readers beyond just literary fiction fans. With deceptive persistence, we are faced with the undeniable truth that we cannot change the past, that we will falter and shudder at present challenges, and nervously contemplate the trials that lie ahead. The brilliance of Fortune Smiles is marked by the conflicts of the heart and mind, and the exuberant quality of its compassionate prose. Something tells me that Adam Johnson smiles at his recent good fortunes, but it is clear that it has not happened by chance, and that his readers are actually the truly fortunate ones. Fortune Smiles is the best short story collection since Tenth of December.
Johnson’s editor, David Ebershoff refers to Johnson as “one of America’s greatest living writers.” I had a conversation with the acclaimed Executive Editor at Random House recently about Fortune Smiles. I told him that “Nirvana” is one of my favorite short stories of all time. “He is so interesting. Endlessly,” Ebershoff said in reference to Johnson. Now, David has edited this collection and Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel so he has a special interest in Adam’s writing, but nevertheless, his assertions are undeniably accurate. Adam Johnson is one of America’s greatest living writers, and one of the only ones that stands in the upper echelon of both novelists and short story writers.