Can Men Write, Actually? A Deeply Negative Take on Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson

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Fortune Smiles
★★☆☆☆
Adam Johnson

Yes the title is a joke but I swear you’ll understand.

This review begins somewhat complementary, and indeed is, on the whole. There is one story in this that is a garbage fire and a half and not in a way where I can forgive the rest.

George Orwell was a Friend of Mine is by far my favorite from this book: it’s a story about the moral problems of bystanding, and the ways in which collective memory can fail us. I know some found Fortune Smiles less powerful, but I appreciated its direct commentary on the problems of assimilation. Both of these stories successfully convey the mundanity of living in an oppressive society and the cultural shock, afterwards, of realizing its global perception. I appreciated that George Orwell fit multiple perspectives; Fortune Smiles does not question its narrative’s disdain for “the tv defectors,” those who have experienced trauma, and I enjoyed that the former story explored this contrast.

I unfortunately found the stories of both Nirvana and Hurricanes Anonymous to be on the lower end of enticing. I read this book out of order, with these two coming second and third after Fortune Smiles, and found them each to be oddly lacking in contrast to what came before. Nirvana explores romanticization of the past and technology’s impact on our grief; Hurricanes Anonymous focuses on a single father after Katrina and the repetition of old mistakes. Johnson clearly does not enjoy emotionality in his narrators, which works for stories like George Orwell; I felt this held the stories back here. Perhaps as a result, I came away feeling both of these stories were saying very little. Each was more interesting, maybe even entertaining, than impactful.

Hurricanes Anonymous, specifically, follows a specific trend of this collection: the tendency to focus on the lives of those doing wrong, with very little redemption or questioning towards this. Perhaps this is why I found the story that best subverted this trend and asked questions of personal responsibility — George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine — to be my favorite.

Reviewer Emilypoints out, I think correctly, that the two stories in unfamiliar settings are ironically the more human of the collection. In contrast, stories in more familiar settings begin using wild gimmicks to distinguish themselves. Strip the several fascinating premises of Nirvana away, and you have very little. Some of these stories, to me, feel cynical to a point where they cease to say anything. A generational gap, perhaps.

I have a very complicated array of thoughts towards Dark Meadow, a story that deals with a reformed-maybe pedophile, who does not act on his feelings. I was really expecting to hate it. I instead have complex feelings on it. It certainly asks complex questions.

I think in general, almost all of these stories step outside the realm of personal experience. I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing but it’s worth commenting upon.

Were these stories the only stories of the collection, I would probably have felt that though this collection was a mixed bag for me personally, it was a good expression of talent. However, the story Interesting Facts genuinely disgusts me. This story was written about Johnson’s wife, as he mentions in a 2015 interview:
“That was a story where I just kind of dropped the guise of fiction and wrote about my wife being sick and what it did to her and our kids.”

Now, I have a scenario:
Imagine that you are diagnosed with breast cancer and have a double mastectomy. Your husband reacts to this by writing a story in which you — and it’s very clearly you, his wife, not a hypothetical wife; the story’s husband even has a Pulitzer for writing about North Korea — envy other women with larger breasts, before dying and coming back as a ghost to continue watching the women he may or may not be dating. He adds in a subtext about himself having a fetish for Asian women — which is honestly quite disturbing, considering he writes about North Korea for a living — and for big breasts, which is downright insulting as, again, you have just had a double mastectomy. You’ve just undergone the trauma of breast cancer, and this is how your husband was thinking about you: as an already-ghost, stripped of agency, desperate to get your breasts back. Now, imagine that instead of looking at this story as a somewhat misogynistic and hateful expression of trauma and putting it aside, he publishes this story without removing any identification, leaving in many humiliating details of the ordeal of breast cancer.

I think this as a situation is genuinely disturbing. It made me very strongly wish this man had not received any of my money.

I think Adam Johnson is wonderfully good at writing. I don’t think that, as a society, we should necessarily appreciate that he does so.

Have you read Fortune Smiles? Or: what are some other books you’ve read that really made you feel like men shouldn’t write about women ever again? Let me know in the comments!

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