News of the National Book Award for Fiction heightened the effect of our morning coffees when we learned that crowd-favorite A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara would not be bringing home the bacon. This year, the prize went to Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson, the Stanford English professor who previously won the 2013 Pulitzer for The Orphan Master’s Son. Sticking close to Johnson’s trademark tone and themes, Fortune Smiles gives us lengthy short stories that reveal how the worlds we move in—built by monumental political pasts and fluid technological presents—shape our loneliness. In the title piece, Johnson returns to North Korea, the setting he is best known for, to follow two defectors adjusting to life in Seoul, only to strain their friendship, the only remnant of their past lives.
The book’s major themes are already clear in the first piece of the collection, “Nirvana”, in which a programmer creates a simulacrum of a recently assassinated POTUS, a projection-turned-buddy, in order to cope with his wife’s paralysis. While he seeks solace in the therapeutic company of the dead president, consolation comes to his wife in the form of Kurt Cobain’s music. The domestic tension incrementally unfolds its dystopian undertones (think: Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go) as the most intimate relationships in these characters’ lives are no longer with each other but with those who are not truly around, digital spectres.
Notable too is “Interesting Facts” which chronicles a dying woman’s journey from out-of-body to in-the-body (her words, not mine) to the-in-between. Suspending the reader as to whether the protagonist is in her supernatural state or simply recalling memories, Johnson excavates in less than thirty-five pages the final days of a writer with her young family. As mentioned in the story, cancer teaches you to see the insides of things. It brings you visions marrow-deep, as you go through a detailed run down of how medicine and treatments affect the body, and mythologically expansive as the wife makes numerous references to her writer-husband’s Native American lineage. It’s an interesting fact that Mr. Roses, a character in one of the writer-husband’s novels “Dark Meadow” is also the protagonist of a story of the same title in the collection. This detail adds a meta-narrative layer to the book, proving that Johnson is a lead scientist in the literary lab of short fiction.
These are finely calibrated stories that immerse you in six distinct types of losses and the loves that accompany them. The sadness is intoxicating. Read moderately.