Fortune Smiles: Stories
Imagine George Orwell got it wrong. Big Brother isn’t a Stasi- or North Korean–style government watching the unremarkable comings-and-goings of the people. YouTube and Facebook have taken its place. It’s the metadata attached to the pornography you shouldn’t be watching that’s watching you; it’s the teenage girl who’s filmed you talking to your dog and made the sound bite go viral; it’s the Google search algorithm that can recreate your personality and project a hologram of you—more or less you—with the help of a new device from Apple.
It turns out 1984 arrived, years ago, and it isn’t quite what we imagined.
In Fortune Smiles, Adam Johnson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, returns with six short stories that mine this territory—asking what surveillance means today, identity, representation—all those perennial questions, but with a sharp and nuanced wit, a prose that will knock you off your feet, and a kind of off-beat intelligence formerly reserved to David Foster Wallace or George Saunders.
In “Nirvana,” the rare autoimmune condition Gillain-Barré syndrome has rendered the narrator’s wife paralyzed shortly after the JFK motorcade–style assassination of an unnamed president. The narrator invents an algorithm that scrubs the Web for results related to the president and recreates—and projects—an interactive president for the millions of people who begin downloading the app.
Here, as in nearly all of the six stories, Johnson reminds us that the tropes we know from the dystopian writers of yore—malevolent robots and total surveillance—have arrived. The bad robot: replaced by the data we offer up, obediently, to Google. Total surveillance now takes the form of civilian drones manned by Amazon. And the president is a kind of Magic 8 Ball that will answer your most mundane questions.
Big Brother was us all along.
In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine,” the author juxtaposes the imagined future of “Nirvana” with the near past of East Germany 18 years after the Wall came down. The narrator, a former Stasi prison administrator, returns to his old stomping grounds day after day, picking up his dog’s waste as he heckles tour groups led by former prisoners. The death rate in the prison, he claims, was no higher than anywhere else. No one, he claims, was ever tortured on his watch.
If this man thrived in East Germany, he’s withering post-unification, a new object of scorn in a world where a teenage girl with a cell phone sees all. It’s hard to finish the story without feeing an uncomfortable tug of pity for this man who’s landed on the wrong side of history—a place where souvenirs include T-shirts silkscreened with epaulettes and nametags that read “Stasi Prison Warden.”
This story seems to prepare the reader for the even darker turn “Dark Meadow” takes later in the collection—a story told from another surprising point of view: a child pornographer, a man who can’t seem to decide whether to help the police capture pedophiles using an inventive metadata technique or to rescue an old online pal with a unique collection of indecent vintage photographs . . . whether to help out neighbor children who have spot a neighborhood Peeping Tom or to give them three hundred dollars for a yard-sale painting of a boat and invite them into his bed.
In the end, the story is deeply disturbing but not for the most obvious reason. It’s disturbing not so much because it grabs the third rail of child pornography, but because Johnson introduces a Humbert Humbert of the new millennium, a man it would be hard to call good or bad, a protagonist readers may even feel inclined to root for. Johnson transports his reader so fully and deftly into the world of the story, into the psychology of his character, that it’s hard to imagine that reader emerging without feeling dirty, too.
The worlds Johnson introduces in these six stories pack a powerful punch. Though the language is pared down and well-considered, the stories rarely retreat into dirty realism. To say they’re dystopian or postmodern would do them a disservice, too.
If you can overlook the occasional twee turn—the one-too-many reference to Google’s ownership of it all—and a storytelling style that favors wandering, thoughtful episodes over page-turning plot twists, these stories find a provocative new ground to inhabit . . . one where ordinary people must make sense of worlds as populated by the ordinary phenomena of sickness, separation, jealousy, and domestic drama as they are by corporations, rogue algorithms, civilian drones, and smart phones.
In these worlds, you can carry the same kind of affection for the corporation UPS that you do for a good friend or a long-lost lover, and—to Johnson’s resounding success—the most uncanny part of it all is that you come away from these powerfully well-written fictions not knowing whether that bodes well or not.