Diane Johnson

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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.)

Karyl Roosevelt

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"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. And Diane Johnson doesn't give it to us. Her book conceals more than it reveals—I suspect because she doesn't know the necessary answers herself.

It's too bad, too, because she writes well. She has created a wonderful character in the mad Osella, who appears in the end as a performer in a surreal nightclub act, oiled, nude, immense, "superfemale" and "breathing up all the air in the room." She is able to make us believe in Ev, the baby-sitter, and she seems particularly adept in picking up the black dialogue of these women. She is obviously a careful listener: the conversations flow easily, without strain—we feel we're simply eavesdropping. She handles her difficult material smoothly too; that is, events and transitions are never jarring or unnatural, which is usually the case when violence is introduced. (pp. 6-7)

The attacker or murderer is never discovered, but it seems obvious that N. is her own destroyer. Her acceptance, even desire for abuse, is thoroughly rewarded. In the end she is raped by the unknown assailant. But amazingly, that seems to be all right with her. It wasn't too bad. In fact, "I felt happy. Anything bad can happen to the unwary, and when life sends you the coup de grâce you have a way of knowing … I feel better."

That may be impressive, but it's difficult to like or admire this woman. I think her lover saw his chance [to leave her] and took it. All of this grimy wallowing is not nice; it's tiresome and inevitably, as with some unexplained weakness of character that can't be changed, we grow impatient and simply don't want to deal with it anymore. (p. 7)

Karyl Roosevelt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 22, 1974.

A. S. Byatt

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'No man knows what...

(This entire section contains 417 words.)

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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 glibly that the perils of the outer world are nothing compared to the dark abysses of the mind, 'strange powers which drive you into the arms of murderers'….

Here, the dark American Gothic takes over. References are made to the Heart of Darkness. The blacks are at home in the world of Gothic and that of reality…. [N. undergoes] an easy, dream-like rape, in keeping with her fantasy-world of passion and violence; and claims, as a result, to have become 'a shadow, a creature of the dark', to have joined 'the spiritually sly'. Morality, as in so many American novels, slides into a dream of evil which underlies it.

A. S. Byatt, "American Gothic," in New States man (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 6, 1975, p. 760.

Diane Johnson's account of the thoughts and deeds of her characters [in "Lying Low"] … is sensitive and subtle, but her descriptions of young folk sneaking around with noxious homemade "jelly and jam" (obviously explosives) are not, and the violent turn of events seems an awkward attempt to endow a cerebral narrative with the action of a thriller. (pp. 249-50)

The New Yorker (© 1978 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), November 13, 1978.

Robert Towers

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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)

"Lying Low" is composed of the mosaic-like juxtaposition of small paragraphs, each containing a short description, a bit of action, reflections of one of the principal characters, or a mixture of all three….

Each paragraph is written in what might be called sharp focus, with almost no blurring or foreshortening of effect. But despite the lack of any headlong narrative rush, one's interest in the working out of the story is maintained at a high level by the skillful, unobtrusive distribution of plot fragments or suspense devices (to put it crudely) along the route of the reader's perceptions. The characters have premonitions: what is presumably the shadow of a vacuum cleaner cast momentarily upon the wall is perceived by Ouida as the shadow of death itself.

The grace, sensuousness and precision of Diane Johnson's prose is evident…. Skilled in rendering the perpetual flicker of thought and sensation, she can immerse herself in the consciousness of one of her characters and then draw back to comment crisply upon its limitations. A similar deftness distinguishes her use of dialogue, which weaves in and out of the play of consciousness, often with droll results.

Any reader of "The Shadow Knows" will expect Mrs. Johnson to excel in the characterization of women, and "Lying Low" will more than confirm that expectation. Theo, graceful at 60, bicycling through Orris in her black leotard, tights and a long black skirt with a ruffle at the bottom, is superbly drawn, so complex and so lifelike as almost to defeat analysis…. Marybeth is more journalistically conceived, perhaps, but nonetheless a vital and touching presence in the novel…. The characterization of Ouida is a tour de force—one that might daunt a less confident writer. Stumbling through the pages in her bewilderment, a compendium of every crackpot belief and superstition that has come her way, Ouida radiates an absurd but compelling charm. She also serves as a prism through which the racial and social anomalies of North American life are sometimes comically, often frighteningly, magnified and distorted.

It doesn't really matter that the leading male figures are less substantially rendered…. They function well enough for the purposes [Mrs. Johnson] has in mind. As does Ouida's friend, Mr. Griggs, whose passionate denunciation of the Bank of America and white folks' justice flashes like scarlet lightening across the smoky conclusion of this remarkable novel. (pp. 70, 72)

Robert Towers, "Four Days of Four Lives," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1978, pp. 3, 70, 72.

Thomas R. Edwards

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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 its subjects are somber enough, an equivalent delight comes through in Johnson's keen sense of the closeness of terror and comic absurdity…. Diane Johnson's picture of how a troubled past keeps reasserting itself by filling up an empty present with dire ideas of the future is a wholly serious one, but it makes living in such a present a little more fun. (pp. 35-6)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), November 23, 1978.

Mary Gordon

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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 achieve in Lying Low.

The end of the novel, which includes the disaster we have all been waiting for, comes too fast. The details are blurred, and so is the terror. We ought to have been put through the horror of Theo's end with that same leisure of the postman surveying the neighborhood. I feel particularly cheated at not having had a slower look at Ouida's ruinous festa.

Johnson's conclusions are probably correct: disaster will come in precisely the place we forgot to fear it. Lying Low is full of ironic intelligence; the issues are right, but Johnson hasn't created characters fleshy enough to embody them. I cannot imagine Marybeth ever having had the wit or the rage to throw a bomb at anything: perhaps living underground for years has a bleaching effect, but this girl is almost lobotomized. And in a story so heavily dependent upon action, plotting is crucial. Johnson's timing is often off, particularly at the end when the shadowy Mr. Griggs tells a story of a Dostoevskian encounter with the Bank of America. It is precisely this kind of failure of justice that makes terrorism seem the only rational solution, but the connection is too oblique when we are waiting for the bomb to go off.

Lying Low is a deeply distressing novel. Jonson has a perfect sense of menace; her rough beast slouches, audible but nameless and he comes into our vision in his heavy danger. But the novel is a difficult form for dread and for terrorists; the kind of expansiveness that keeps it going may be inappropriate to dread, and the kind of detail about characters that connects the past to the characters' present is precisely the kind of detail that terrorists excise from their lives. But Johnson is impeccable at naming monsters; she approaches her nightmare subject with a solitary rigor, assuring us that everything we thought we saw is there, and turning on the lights.

Mary Gordon, "Hostages to Terror," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), November 26, 1978, p. E5.




Johnson, Diane (Vol. 5)