Johnson, Diane (Vol. 13)
Johnson, Diane 1934–
An American novelist, Johnson is noted for her perceptive portraits of women caught in the conflict between individual desires and society's demands. Lying Low is her latest novel and, like most of Johnson's fiction, is set in California. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)
"If you are going to have lovers and a life of freedom and intellect, you have to expect unwed pregnancies and divorces and malice and mistakes," [said N., the protagonist of The Shadow Knows]. But just a minute. Is that really what a life of intellect implies? It's hardly a foregone conclusion … [and] all this reductive reasoning is difficult to go along with.
We are never told what's responsible for N.'s incredible passivity, why she is so devoid of energy, always acted upon, a constant victim. The only explanation seems to be her overweening guilt, so enormous within her that she must be punished over and over and reminded in brutish ways of her own worthlessness. But the reasons for this masochistic personality are never brought out. We are not told, for instance, why she was incapable of taking care of her children during her marriage. Her husband points out that she couldn't even keep house, let alone take care of the children. She doesn't work … and she has no particular burning, thwarted ambition. So what is all this? Is she a psychotic, a paranoiac? Or just cranky and recalcitrant?
In this age of analysis, we have all become psychologists …, [but] if the reader [here] must now become an analyst, the author must not withhold information—it's not fair. In order to decide who is the lunatic, the murderer, the rapist, we must have some background, some histories, anecdotes, something to work with....
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A. S. Byatt
'No man knows what evil lurks in the secret heart of men. But the Shadow Knows.' So I am told by an American friend, a Valentine Dyall-like voice informed the Americans before every episode of a radio serial. The Shadow was a mastermind, a super-detective, anonymous, ubiquitous. The claim of the mystery-voice is, in itself, ambiguous. So, I take it, is Diane Johnson's novel, which is a cunning cross between the intensely articulate plaint of the under-extended intelligent woman and a conventional mystery, shading into a psychological horror-story….
N. [the narrator], for all her sympathy with, and intermittent admiration of, herself, is a chilly and rebarbative creature. A good feminist might say she was a typical product of a way of life she is feebly trying to rebut. Horrified by housework, blinded by smeary fingers of entirely uncharacterised children on her glasses, she takes to transformational grammar, about which she says nothing, and adultery, about which she says a lot. Her moments of vigour are those of the unliberated woman—bodily narcississm, a manipulative, masochistic helplessness before lover and reader….
[N.'s] imagination can be seen as a self-referring, self-nourished, proliferating fantasy. All the other people in the book are two dimensional, mediated by her obsessive, self-castigating, self-justifying vision. The plot is in several ways her construct…. Psychoanalysed Bess claims...
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["The Shadow Knows" is an ambitious pseudo-suspense novel] notable for the psychological subtlety with which it traces the sliding of fear into paranoia and for its portrayal of two black women—one a born victim of great dignity, the other a madwoman of grotesque proportions—who are closely associated with the narrator. But for all its brilliance of insight and characterization, "The Shadow Knows" is significantly flawed by a basic irresolution, by the failure of [Diane Johnson] to track down a sufficiency of the hares she has let loose.
By contrast, "Lying Low" seems to me a nearly flawless performance—a beautifully constructed, elegantly written book, delicate in its perceptions, powerful in its impact. Set in the university town of Orris, Cal., it centers upon the four occupants of a Victorian house in a neighborhood that has seen better days. (p. 3)
The action occupies four days—Wednesday through Saturday—that begin with the killing of one of Theo's hens by a neighborhood dog and end with a catastrophe that is at once surprising and plausible…. [Many events occur] but they occur naturally, with none of the frantic piling on of incident typical of so much fiction of the hyperkinetic school. It is one of Diane Johnson's triumphs that she can capture and make interesting the sheer "dailiness" of existence within a framework that could so easily lend itself to melodrama. (pp. 3, 70)
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Thomas R. Edwards
Diane Johnson is uncannily alert to the subtleties of [her women characters' feelings in Lying Low], and she has no trouble in showing that the reality they inhabit is quite as dangerous as they think it is. (p. 34)
The book is less successful with, or maybe just less interested in, its male characters. Anton Wait's artistic and sexual complexities are mentioned rather than explored, and his marginal presence seems mainly designed to set off the quite different qualities of his sister….
Chuck Sweet, Marybeth's beautiful football player from back home, is, as his name implies, virtually an allegorical character…. [When] Marybeth speculates that he may be "a designated agent of happiness," it sounds as if even she suspects that a puzzling authorial joke is being made.
But if Chuck himself seems a cartoon, Marybeth's reactions to him make sense. Men are good for incidental domestic pleasures, but they interfere with the serious business of a life like hers….
At her best, with the women characters, Johnson does wonderfully what she can't or won't do with Chuck, which is to imagine the reality of other minds without forgetting their limitations. (p. 35)
Lying Low is an elegantly written and constructed novel, full of a talented writer's delight in her mastery of such things as multiple points of view and shifts in narrative verb tenses. And, though...
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The pall of dread hangs over Lying Low—not terror, but something slower, vaguer, the nightmares of a summer afternoon before the thunder when the air is thick, and horror, yet unnameable, hints but does not reveal itself. The success of this novel rests almost entirely on its tone. Johnson speaks in the voice of the observer of the American condition whose data suggests that our only possible fate is to have our throats cut in our beds by unlikely strangers….
Johnson is highly successful in depicting the inner life of this discriminating moralist [Theo] who is proud of her body's good condition as if her body were an animal she had reared, and romantic about Marybeth, the beautiful terrorist whom she vows to shelter even without knowing the specific nature of her crimes.
It may be the central flaw of this novel that even the reader does not know the specific nature of Marybeth's crimes. She floats through the novel, alternately longing for the peace of certain capture and trying to elude it by obtaining a false identity…. Johnson's description of the childless Marybeth's desperate attempt to keep [a] child entertained for a day … is a wonderfully observed and finely sustained episode. Marybeth's terror when she thinks the child is lost, her relief at finding him, her inept comprehension of his omnipresent physical needs are described with a finely paced precision that, alas, Johnson does not often...
(The entire section is 579 words.)