Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2322
Johnson, Diane 1934–
Ms Johnson is a highly regarded American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44.)
[Burning] may well be the song the sirens sang, so fresh it is, so beguiling that you'll never be able to resist it, even with wax in your deadened ears. A Southern California novel without a single lousy movie starlet, a tale of fire in the hills and drugs in the system, of a Bel Air heroine who, "except for being plain and a terrible housekeeper," was a perfect wife, of children who thrive on neglect and pizza and Chicken Delight, of firemen who have more sex appeal than Francis X. Bushman but nourish tidy consciences, of a guru psychiatrist who uses drug-and-sex therapy, eats only cream and orange juice, and agonizes over neglected fleshy succulents more than over his patients … oh, I tell you this is a swinging novel!
So much is going on here that it's like trying to describe a twelve-ring circus in standard prose….
The literal holocaust threatens from page one, and when it finally roars through the pathetic sprinkler systems, swimming pools, and protective rings of ice plant, it comes almost as a relief, a confirmation of the absurd disaster inherent in this social landscape. Neither the characters nor the reader knows whether to scream or laugh…. Mrs. Johnson superintends this asylum with cool disdain and a remarkable neo-classic elegance of phrase, sentence, and chapter. It's comforting to know that someone competent is in charge.
J. R. Frakes, "Siren Song," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1971 Postrib Corp.), September 5, 1971, p. 2.
Diane Johnson apparently has hit upon the solution to all those kooks, cultists, junkies, bogus professionals, displaced Midwesterners whose innocence is awash, police, firemen, Chicanos, Negroes and social workers who inhabit the easy cliché of Los Angeles: Simply burn the damn place down. At least this is what happens to an appreciable part of that sprawling metropolis toward the end of "Burning," and once the Biblical wrath and apocalyptic quality of this great fire is certain, the reader will probably issue a sigh of relief. Not because our continued and restless suckling on various moral tenets is finally vindicated by the flaming purification of Diane Johnson's Los Angeles à la Sodom and Gomorrah, but simply because the author has found the means to bring her book to a close. Phew. (p. 6)
Tom McHale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1971.
Firemen, policemen, government investigators and welfare workers are important to Miss Johnson's Los Angeles setting [for "Burning"], increasing the surrealism that attends all California fiction…. Even Miss Johnson's sex scenes are unexpectedly cheery. She is witty and serious, I think, but tries to be both at once and doesn't make it. Her book should have been either much funnier or much grimmer or, failing that, she should have been much better. (p. 118)
Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek (copyright 1971 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1971.
It is news to nobody that the leisured end of American society tends to produce bored and baffled Freud-ridden ciphers who are willing to accept any seemingly authoritative estimate of themselves and their needs, so the comedy [in Burning] is pretty thin. Group-therapy and the drug-induced self-analysis of depressed citizens have been done to death as satirical material. The most depressing thing about the book is that Miss Johnson is plainly too intelligent to be unaware of this. Living as she does at the current spiritual battlefront of civilisation, she must simply snipe away at the dismal targets that offer themselves, knowing that the small-arms fire of Burning is unlikely to bring them down. (p. 706)
R. R. Davies, in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 19, 1971.
Diane Johnson is one of our most interesting contemporary writers, and one is surprised at the lack of attention her three novels, Fair Game (1965), Loving Hands at Home (1968), and Burning (1971), have received. She is the kind of writer Virginia Woolf says in A Room of One's Own it is very difficult for a woman to be: she is in control of her material, communicating not personal anger nor frustration but her own vision—through novels about Los Angeles in the last third of the twentieth century—of the conditions of life itself; and she has followed her own artistic impulses rather than the fads of the moment.
What seem to be Johnson's virtues may account for her relative lack of popular appeal. She is not sensational, sentimental, nor simple-minded. Although her central characters are women about whom she writes perceptively, she is increasingly aware of the complexities of their dilemmas and the impossibility of separating women's lives from men's. Her characters' situations are increasingly tangled, and her resolutions increasingly tentative. She writes in the satiric-comic-realistic tradition, in a mode that may not appeal to readers nurtured on the personal, subjective, and doctrinaire.
The lack of serious critical attention is another matter. Her novels both require and reward careful attention, particularly when seen as ever more successful variations on a few central themes: the conflict between individuals' desires and society's institutions and conventions, institutions which cannot either channel individuals into constructive and integrated lives or even control the destructive, disintegrating forces which are equally inherent in life; the dangers of venturing outside established boundaries, but the futility of looking for security within them; the need to become aware of the exciting yet frightening possibilities of life.
In each of Johnson's novels a woman who has ventured outside the boundaries has a shocking experience which sends her back inside, but only temporarily until another experience within the only apparently safe boundaries either sends her outside again or changes her whole perspective. In each novel characters and scenes symbolize the allurement, mystery, promise and terror of the life outside, and in each the overtones are satiric-comic-grotesque. These elements are progressively more closely integrated with the realistic elements, so that the third novel, Burning, is at once the grimmest and the funniest. (pp. 53-4)
Burning is her most satisfying novel. At one level it is a satire of our regulatory agencies: child welfare, police, firemen. At another, it is a satire of both our contemporary culture and our counterculture. At its deepest level, it is a compassionate yet unsentimental examination of our difficulties in coping with ourselves, with one another, and with our natural environment. (p. 60)
Diane Johnson is not … a "feminist writer" in the contemporary sense. She is a contemporary writer with an interest in dehumanization, loss of personal identity, rents in the social fabric; and she sees these conditions as affecting women perhaps even more acutely than men. Her novels are not merely topical, though their surfaces may be; they deal with the essential fragility of life and the defenses we build against both its freest and most dangerous expression, a situation whose realistic, comic, and grotesque elements she explores. She has a sense of form that enables her to integrate symbolism, narrative, and characterization into a coherent whole. Johnson is at her best in episodes combining social commentary with revelation of an individual's development…. Though some of the situations are depressing, the novels are not; Johnson's comic sense provides a perspective. All in all, she is already a good novelist and, as she is also a young novelist, she may become a very good one. (p. 63)
Marjorie Ryan, "The Novels of Diane Johnson," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 53-63.
The Shadow Knows is no mystery novel. Rather, it is an extraordinarily vivid, intricate and affecting account of one week in the life of a young woman caught in the grip of terror. On the most immediate level, it is a novel about what it is like to be a woman—and it is so vastly superior to the run-of-the-mill "new woman's novel" that to place it within the genre would be an insult to its author. On a larger level, it is a novel about what it is like simply to be a human being trying "to find your way in the dark" of inexplicable evil….
[N.'s] obsession becomes the identification of [her] real or fancied would-be murderer…. As she is drawn ever more deeply into her obsession, N. falls into a realm where fact and fantasy are confused. The incidents are real enough …—but are they anything more than a chain of unrelated circumstances? All we know is that N. is desperate, and that she is seeking ways to cope with that desperation. Torn between "life and death thoughts," she looks around for—and finds—ways to see in the dark.
The breadth and depth of Diane Johnson's accomplishment cannot be overstated. Taking her title from a once-popular radio melodrama ("Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!"), she has elevated pop to art. The novel is a consideration of "what's lurking in people's hearts," in particular the heart of N. herself. Her voyage through terror becomes that classic American story, the voyage to self-discovery, told with astonishing complexity and subtlety. A self-centered and somewhat frivolous girl becomes a whole woman, capable of dealing with life on its harsh and mysterious terms.
Read The Shadow Knows, if you wish, for its suspense; there is plenty of it, brilliantly sustained. Read it for its insights into a woman undergoing the shock of liberation. Read it for its wit, its compassion, its flawless prose, its wells of feeling. But by all means read it. It is as fine a novel as we have seen this year—and this is a year in which we have seen some very fine novels.
Jonathan Yardley, "What Evil Lurks…," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), December 22, 1974, p. 1.
In Diane Johnson's remarkable … novel, The Shadow Knows…, we are told nothing whatever about the heroine's childhood and early youth, about her parents or their social and economic class, about her brothers and sisters or her favorite traumas. Nor are we give a dutiful sketch of that tiresome ancestral symbol in current fiction, the all-powerfully influential grandparent. In fact, we do not even learn the narrator's first name—she is only N. Hexam throughout.
Yet I can think of few characters in recent fiction whose being is more lucidly concrete and intricately alive, more compelling and distinct….
Miss Johnson … insists that her heroine simply stand up and be—in the discontinuous, remorseless present and the immediate mess of her life, never looking back nostalgically to vanished years for excuses and explanations…. It is all we need to know, for Miss Johnson has an uncanny gift for infusing an evocative intensity into the here and now. (p. 17)
Miss Johnson, astonishingly for a woman writer in 1974, has not been seduced by fashionably bitter feminist ideology. Despite circumstances that are appallingly bleak and unlikely to improve in the near future, N. is too self-mocking to seriously indulge in the tiresome litanies of grievance and complaint that militancy inspires. She is too quirky and sardonic for slogans, yet also more recklessly self-committed than most feminists…. Where treacherous reality ends and N.'s terrified fantasies take over is the unresolvable conundrum at the heart of this memorable book, and in the end the only tangible certainty is N.'s unique talent for surviving on her own terms, for defending the best of herself even when the enemy is only her own darkest imaginings. With [this] novel … Diane Johnson becomes one of the genuinely arresting voices in American writing today. (p. 18)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 20, 1975.
"Sola, perduta, abbandonata!" exclaims Puccini's Manon Lescaut—alone, lost, abandoned—the ultimate female cry of woe. And the three words are still drifting into our lives from the pages of the past, like unconquerable dust. Or so Diane Johnson's … novel, The Shadow Knows, seems to tell us. (p. 728)
Revolving like a grim carrousel around the torment—the paranoia—of the victim,… The Shadow Knows, is first of all a sort of bitter parody of a genre invented by 19th-century men: the detective novel. Its heroine-narrator, who guardedly names herself "N.," quite early in the book decides that she is being stalked by a murderer, perhaps along with her four children and her black maid, Ev. Her increasingly frantic attempts to discover the criminal's identity … and her imaginary dialogues with a tweedily contemptuous famous inspector make up the substance of the novel.
As the story unfolds out of the hectic spinnings of N.'s mind, it resonates like Charlotte Brontë filtered through Kafka, or like a strange dream in which Agatha Christie is transformed into a feverish metaphysician. The victim become detective, trying to solve the crime without even knowing what it is. How many novels by women … must develop that plot less explicitly but just as passionately? (p. 730)
[N.'s] terrified broodings echo those of Jane Eyre, for whose is the "low, slow ha! ha!" Jane hears in the attic at Thornfield, what is the shadow that haunts Jane and Rochester if not the same murderous darkness that moves too often between men and women, victor and victim, seducer and betrayer?
For this reason, because it is ultimately metaphorical, Johnson's plot is hard to unravel. There is a flash of uncertainty at the end of the book, as if the novelist herself, even while trying to finish the story on a hopeful note, recognized that there is no simple solution to the mystery, no easy way out of the mad tangle. "Sola, perduta, abbandonata!" N. quotes the phrase herself—each woman must struggle with her femaleness in her own way, survive betrayals through unique strategies. The literary implications of all this are what critics … should begin to examine with more care. (pp. 730-31)
Sandra M. Gilbert, in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), June 14, 1975.