On Diane Johnson

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At first glance, Diane Johnson, author of six novels, two biographies and a book of essays, isn't the usual image of a Western heroine. Or at any rate, she seems more the schoolmarm than the pioneer woman behind the plow. For years Johnson taught Victorian literature; she has a demure prettiness and demeanor that make you think she should be the author of something decorous like "The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady," rather than "The Shadow Knows" or "Terrorists and Novelists."

In her work, however, Johnson is anything but demure. Her originality and courage are evident in everything she writes and, in that sense, her spirit is genuinely Western. She is a fitting winner of The Robert Kirsch Award, given "for a body of work by a writer living in or writing on the West."

Johnson wrote the first couple of her six novels while she was a graduate student in English at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was in her early 30s then, married to a preoccupied doctor-in-training; she gave birth to four children in six years. She wrote at the kitchen table, usually with children around, sometimes sharing child-care duties with her friend, writer Alison Lurie. Her heroine in "The Shadow Knows" is a divorced mother of four under the age of 6 who says, "Mine was the ordinary misery of mothers of small children."

Johnson's persistence in finishing and publishing those early novels, plus a doctoral thesis and a biography around the same time, shows the kind of guts you would have seen in a pioneer woman in a sod hut in 19th-Century Nebraska. Like so many Californians, Johnson was born and raised in the Midwest, in Moline, Ill. Of her first husband, whom she married at age 19, she says, "I think I married him because he was going to California." All her novels are set here--not just in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also in more out-of-the-way places like Sacramento and Davis (one exception, "Persian Nights," transports San Franciscans to Shiraz, Iran). How many novels have been set in a low-income housing project in North Sacramento?

The California sense of dread, that Joan Didion specialty, underlies Johnson's fiction. Here's how "The Shadow Knows," her fourth and favorite novel, begins:

"You never know, that's all, there's no way of knowing. There was that man in Carmichael who walked into the beauty shop and murdered all the women by tying them to the dryers and pulling plastic bags over their heads." Our heroine avoids the plastic-bag murderer, but her story weaves together the domestic and the dire; she's buying tires at the West Sacramento Sears, and she's having a miscarriage.

The idea of the West, of course, includes more than dread. The bottom may fall out, we believe, anything bad can happen--but there's also room for surprising and good things to happen. Johnson gives her idea of the West at the end of a New York Review of Books essay on John McPhee's Alaska book, "Coming Into the Country," where she celebrates the West's "valuable myths of independence and cooperation and personal enterprise." She concludes: "Maybe noble lies can only thrive in open, clean places, and if they can survive, then maybe they can exert some regenerative power over the rest of American life."

Part of Johnson's independence is that she has always been opposed to anything stuffy or pompous; she is especially quick to express irreverence toward the Famous Writer, when the Famous Writer doesn't, at that moment, deserve reverence. In a memorable review of Saul Bellow's novel "The Dean's December," Johnson wrote: "Bellow's approval of (his hero) is so immense, and he takes so little trouble to convince us of his view, that the reader feels excluded; it's like embarking on a long train journey alone with two people who have just fallen in love with each other."

Nor has Johnson been loathe to tangle with powerful personalities. She collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of "The Shining" (1980). (Jack Nicholson's notable line, "Here's Johnny," was not her invention.) Though her life of Dashiell Hammett was the authorized biography and she had the official cooperation of his survivors, in the course of her writing, Johnson had to do battle with a buzz saw--Hammett's lover, playwright Lillian Hellman.

Johnson's quirky sympathy for the suppressed or oppressed person was best demonstrated in her unconventional biography of Victorian novelist George Meredith's wife, Mary Ellen. Known as "Lesser Lives," the book has the full and quite Victorian title, "The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives."

"Many people," she writes in the opening of this book, "have described the Famous Writer presiding at his dinner table, in a clean neck cloth. He is famous; everybody remembers his remarks. He remembers his own remarks, being a writer, and notes them in his diary. We forget that there were other people at the table--a quiet person, now muffled by time, shadowy, whose heart pounded with love, perhaps, or rage, or fear when our writer shuffled in from his study; whose hands, white knuckled, twisted an apron, whose thoughts raced."

For Johnson, the most interesting person at the table was Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, who died at 40 of renal disease after leaving her husband and being forcibly kept from seeing their son because of what her husband explained to the world as her immoral behavior. "We know a lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one," Johnson wrote. "Lesser Lives" freed up other writers to express this kind of democratic sympathy, in particular Phyllis Rose, whose "Parallel Lives" was a similarly humane study of Victorian marriage.

Johnson took the idea of the importance of those supporting characters into her novels. Her heroines are often constrained and apparently timid women who shed their timidity when faced with something frightening or infuriating. Reacting to reviewers who wondered if the heroine of "The Shadow Knows" might be losing her sanity, Johnson noted: "Female narrators, if they're of a sexual age, of a reproductive age, of an age to have affairs, aren't considered trustworthy. . . . Nonetheless, I write about women of childbearing age, because I like to fly in the face of these prejudices and hope that I can make them authoritative and trustworthy reporters."

Johnson's most recent novel, "Health and Happiness," a comedy of manners set in a prestigious San Francisco teaching hospital, puts a Johnson heroine at the mercy of medical authorities. (Johnson's husband, John Murray, is a professor at such a medical center.) A young mother enters the hospital with a minor symptom, is given the wrong medication, nearly dies, and is then given more of the same medication. "Nobody feels worse about it than I do," says an alcoholic surgeon about an even more disastrous case, "but hell, which of us doesn't have a bad day?"

Turning to the front of "Health and Happiness," the reader finds a dedication "to John Murray, who, however, should not be thought responsible for my viewpoint, and to my many other friends who are doctors, with affection and apologies." Affection, yes; apologies, sure. But even this ladylike disclaimer carries a sting and insists on her viewpoint.

Doctor and patient may not, should not, be a relationship of perfect trust. But Johnson doesn't hesitate to present another sacred icon--madonna and infant--in an unsentimental way. In this passage from "The Shadow Knows" she may have found a partial explanation for the behavior of Victorian men like George Meredith, for Saul Bellow and other contemporary greats in their misogynistic moments, and for violent attackers like the one in her novel. The mother of four observes:

"It must be that sometime in his life every little boy baby, rosy in his bath, looking up past the warm, strong arms of his mother into her eyes, one time sees there a strangeness which suddenly reveals to him that she is not him, she is not even like him but is another creature of another race, and however much this terrible recognition may be obscured by subsequent pats, hugs, kisses, coos, years and years of love and encouragement--the terror and isolation of that moment, and the fear of it returning, remain forever."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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