Let's get one thing clear right from the get go - Adam Johnson is a white American dude who teaches literature at Stanford University and who has had very little opportunity to live or work in North Korea, the country of which is one of the subjects of this novel. In fact, he's only been to North Korea once in his lifetime. But somehow, he manages to capture our imagination and what he believes the life that exists in North Korea must be like.
The novel follows Jun Do's (John Doe?) life and Jun Do is supposed to be a stand in for the average North Korean man - the anonymous, like our John Doe or Jane Doe would be here in the States. Jun Do is raised in an orphanage, even though he's not really an orphan. In fact, the man that runs the orphanage is Jun Do's biological father; but Jun Do has never met his mother (who is supposedly a beautiful opera singer that lives in Pyongyang) and he has never been to a museum (even the "North Korean kind"). The orphanage is located in a very remote industrial town, so Jun Do gets through his entered childhood without seeing Pyongyang. When Jun Do comes of age, he is assigned to military training where he is trained in no light combat and put into tunnels underneath the de-militarized zone and then on kidnapping missions where he is charged with kidnapping seemingly innocent Japanese citizens. As a reward, he is sent to Language School where he learns English and then assigned to a fishing ship where he listens to English broadcasts and types out what he hears on a typewriter. Eventually Jun Do is promoted so much that he is sent with an intelligence team to the United States (Texas) and eventually, to impersonation of a high level military official.
I found that the first half of the book was absolutely fascinating while the second half of the book was really, really weird The second half of the book also seemed to deal in stereotypes of North Korea (although I have to say that for all I know it's really like that there - I've never been there and probably never will be there so maybe I'll never find out, although I find it hard to believe that political prisoners are treated the way that they are treated in this novel). AS far as novels go, I really enjoyed it - it was entertaining although sometimes confusing, particularly in the second half of the novel. I generally enjoyed it though.