Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thinking About Diane Johnson

I have mentioned my good luck with garage sale books before -- another writer I first discovered in a .50 bin is Diane Johnson. (Or perhaps it was at the Hammond, Louisiana, Book Exchange: a great store, and not only because it was the only non-Christian book shop outside of NO in the whole state, just about.) It was Lying Low, a novel about a motley collection of people holed up for various reasons in an old Victorian house in a city in California, in the 70's. I found it clever and absorbing and ultimately rather haunting, though I wasn't sure I liked the ending (Johnson has a tendency, in many of her books, to finish up the various plotlines with a Big Bang). Several years later she published Le Divorce to great acclaim, and while this is also a smart, entertaining book, I didn't like it as much, because the characters seemed too comfortable and attractive, and hence, somewhat artificial.

In any case, after the great commercial success of Le Divorce, Plume republished most of Johnson's backlist -- a real treasure trove (though with goofy covers). Johnson is an old fashioned social novelist, more interested in the small vanities and betrayals of regular life than making political statements, though certainly political forces drive her books. The Shadow Knows is probably my favorite -- and forgive me if I've mentioned this book before, but it's a deeply paranoid story about a white divorced mother of four children living in public housing with her black maid. They're being stalked by someone, possibly their former maid (a fascinating and, these days, terribly politically incorrect character). The narrator, a formerly upper middle class woman, discusses race and class with almost shocking, even revelatory, frankness.

Few of my writer friends have read Johnson, perhaps because she doesn't have a lot of literary cred. You probably won't find many of her books on English class reading lists or toted around by creative writing majors. But her books are too smart, thoughtful, ingenious and, well, too strange to please those looking for the reassuring, tidy-ending books that we tend to categorize as "women's fiction." Diane Johnson has always done her own thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I got 3 of Diane Johnson's books, Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L'Affaire, all brand new hardbacks for a $1 each at Baton Rouge's library sales. The only problem with the library sales is that they are very crowded.