When a well-respected novelist publishes her first new work of fiction in almost a decade, the result is something of a literary event. Such is the case with Persian Nights, Diane Johnson’s first novel since Lying Low (1978). In the interim, she published a collection of essays and reviews, Terrorists and Novelists (1982), and a biography, Dashiell Hammett: A Life (1983). It was as a novelist, however, that Johnson had made her reputation, and reviewers generally hailed her return to fiction. Rosemary Dinnage, writing in The New York Review of Books, judged Persian Nights to be “the best of Diane Johnson’s novels,” while Jayne Anne Phillips, in The New York Times Book Review, credited Johnson with a “Cassandra-like” prevision of the Iran-contra scandal and recommended Persian Nights as a primer for Westerners unfamiliar with Iran.
These claims, representative of many reviews, are considerable, and they appear to have been endorsed by the recent award to Johnson (and to novelist Robert Stone) of a five-year, $250,000 grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. (The award, the Mildred and Harold Strauss Livings, is intended to allow writers to devote themselves exclusively to their creative work.) Amid this chorus of praise, it is easy to lose sight of the book at hand: Does Johnson’s novel sustain the claims made on its behalf?
Readers of Persian Nights are implicitly asked to be surprised over numerous examples of a Janus-faced Iran shortly before the downfall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah. Be surprised, Johnson seems to say, when the head of Iran’s Azami Hospital insists, in the face of people dying of typhoid fever, that there is no typhus epidemic; be surprised when Iranian woman, in the face of the Shah’s edict against veils, continue to cover their faces and sometimes throw indelible ink upon those women who abide by the edict; be surprised when Iranian soldiers, in the face of the Shah’s expressed wish to encourage tourism, patrol the city with their machine guns in plain view of everyone; and be surprised, too, when a young Iranian woman, in the face of her American education and all she knows about the relatively free lives American women lead, consents to enter and remain in an arranged marriage to a man more than twice her age. For many readers there will be little surprise in any of this, and only a reader as politically naïve as Chloe Fowler, the central character of this novel, will be surprised to learn with Chloe that wherever the Soviet Union vies for power so, too, does the United States. Iran in this novel—portrayed generally by a focus on the ambience rather than the events which lead to the downfall of the Shah—is such a place. Even so, Chloe is surprised to learn, about midpoint in the story, that Americans (besides stealing Iranian artifacts) are running guns to revolutionaries determined, ironically, to topple the Shah’s American-sponsored regime.
The success of the surprises in Johnson’s novel, then, and of its intrigue and suspense, depends upon one of two things from its readers: either that they be naïve and preferably ignorant of the available historical facts surrounding the Shah’s fall from power, as well as of the roles both the United States and the Soviet Union played in it, or that knowledgeable readers pretend ignorance and follow Johnson’s narrative for the anticipated pleasure of the intriguing ride. After all, one would not read this story for its historical or sociopolitical accuracy.
Johnson also asks her readers to be intrigued—enough, anyway, to keep turning the pages of this, the author’s attempt to write a popular novel with some depth and moral intent. Be intrigued, that is, over who it is that is stealing chemicals from the hospital labs at night; be intrigued over several recent crashes of American-made F-14’s; be intrigued over whether these crashes were caused by sabotage or poor Iranian maintenance; be intrigued over why Dr. Farmani, the head of Azami Hospital, is dragged away from his home and American-born wife early one morning by soldiers; be intrigued over the identity of the fatally injured man found by a group of Americans in Shahpur’s Cave; and be intrigued, too, over why Dr. Hugh Monroe visited Tehran but claimed that he did not. (Only the last two mysteries are explained by Johnson at the end of her novel: The dying man found in the cave was a mean and thieving Russian agent, and Hugh traveled to Tehran to diagnose the Shah’s ailments; thus, according to the author’s portraits here, Russians threaten life while Americans work to preserve it.)
It is in the service of mystery, intrigue, suspense, and surprise that Johnson weakens her novel by employing an omniscient narrator who is, especially where Hugh Monroe is concerned, coy. In other words, although Johnson’s narrator slips unentangled from one major character’s consciousness to another’s, Hugh’s consciousness is kept off-limits until he himself expresses his thoughts and feelings to Chloe for the first time at the story’s end (at which point he is made to seem like a heart that bleeds for being misunderstood). After Chloe, in fact, the most important character in the novel is Hugh; yet, were Johnson to allow her narrator to enter his answer-filled mind, the story’s seemingly jerry-rigged and mystery-dependent structure would collapse into little more than an anticlimactic tale about Chloe Fowler. An amateur art historian who has received a research grant to study Sassanian pottery, Chloe was supposed to be accompanied by her husband to Iran but must go alone when he is forced to stay in San Francisco because his medical partner is seriously injured in a hang-gliding accident.
Against the backdrop of Middle East unrest, then, Johnson essentially bends Persian Nights toward her primary objective: liberating Chloe from what she has been. Married young, for a dozen years she has been the wife of Jeffrey Fowler, a thoracic surgeon, and she is the mother of two children; by the novel’s end, however, her husband has asked for a divorce, and with which parent the children will reside is left undetermined. The reader is undoubtedly expected to feel, with Chloe, some sense of loss, or imminent loss, over her dissolving family matrix; yet in the novel she is nowhere shown interacting as wife or mother (or even as friend to her husband and children), and so there is no way short of interpolation that the reader can have any emotional involvement in this presumably important area of Chloe’s life. Not that one must, or should, view a woman with a husband and children as essentially a wife and mother, but Johnson wants her readers to believe that Chloe, before traveling to Iran alone, was quite content to be defined by those two domestic titles:Chloe was a housewife, conscious of being unfashionable in this, but active and happy at home, only occasionally discontented, fond of sewing and of her...
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