A North Korean whiz kid tries for a slice of the happiness pie, and complications ensue.
Child geniuses, in literature, are sometimes frightening, as in Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai or maybe David Seltzer’s The Omen. As often, they’re simply strange and sometimes pathetic. That’s the case with Gil-mo, who’s no longer young; he says he’s 6, but that’s because he was born on the leap year day of Feb. 29. Numbers are everything to him: “Two unknown variables and one constant—c1 is death and c2 is the murderer, and I am the constant,” he thinks as the book opens, in a scene where, once again, he is in a cell, this time in New York. Once again because, back in his homeland of North Korea—a place Lee, well known as a pop novelist on the other side of the DMZ, describes with aching nostalgia (“the city of weeping willows, the one I left long ago…”)—the young mathematical genius ran afoul of the regime for reasons entirely not of his doing, there to be caught up in an elaborate scheme. Throw in murder, the coefficient of drag, scams, the Fibonacci sequence, and the clink, and you have a Venn diagram in which The Shawshank Redemption and the script to Darren Aronofsky’s first film, Pi, overlap. There are some fleetingly funny moments, some of them building on cultural misunderstanding—as when Gil-mo tries to get across the U.S. border, following the immigrant trail in Arizona, and, as he telepathically tells his Christian father, “[meets] Jesus,” who “dip[s] me in the river and promise[s] me he would take me to America.” It’s nice to have a G-man named Russell Banks, too. Still, as the improbabilities in this probabilistic tale mount, the story begins to look ever more artificial and perhaps even allegorical, a tale in which capitalism and communism alike are found to be more than a little absurd.
Read straight, it doesn’t quite work, but as a Candide-like satire best read with a calculator to hand, it has its moments.