Unguided Tour

Persian Nights

by Diane Johnson
Knopf, 352 pp., $17.95

This is Diane Johnson’s first novel for eight years, and it has a sort of discursive and amiable quality which is somewhat new in her work. The book’s background is Iran just before the fall of the Shah; a group of Iranians and temporarily expatriate Americans are observed by a keen but affectionate eye over a period of a few weeks. There are no heroes or villains, nor—as always in her books—is there an ending in the formal sense. The story stops and the future of the central character, Chloe Fowler, is not told us.

Chloe and her husband Jeffrey are to fly out to Iran, he on a medical mission and she to do some work on antique pottery (like the husband in Loving Hands at Home, Jeffrey is a surgeon—not, it seems, a profession that Johnson loves). At the airport a message arrives to say that Jeffrey’s partner has had a serious accident, and Jeffrey urges Chloe to go on to Tehran alone while he goes back to deal with the emergency at home (a disingenuous suggestion, as it turns out). He never does join her, and Chloe, prettyish and thirtyish, explores sans husband or children the American/Iranian circles of Tehran.

Nothing much, in the plotty, fictional way, really happens. Chloe watches and enjoys and has some sexual adventures; and—since violence is never far from the surface in Diane Johnson’s novels—there is an episode of shooting and murder. Mainly, violence is hidden behind the veils of the women, in ambiguous street gestures, in a kind of haze of something impending. Diane Johnson is as much concerned with Persian exoticism as with ugliness and oppression, with the mixture of ancient and modern that meets Chloe’s Alice-in-Wonderland gaze. When she goes shopping in a Tehran supermarket she sees not only the familiar words Procter & Gamble and Nestlé but also “a beautiful tin of tea with golden camels on it, and a bottle of skin cream, which showed a ravishing woman hidden behind her veil, promising some Cleopatran secret.” Chloe buys them. The title itself of the book suggests something of an old-fashioned travelogue novel, a leisurely and romantic examination of the inscrutable foreign scene, a novel of place. A little curlicue of half-ironic decoration is added by the lush quotations from Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát that head the chapters.

The half-dozen Iranians, mostly doctors and their wives, are by no means inscrutable foreigners, however. Just as in The Shadow Knows Johnson was good at portraying true feelings—love and hate rather than condescension—between black and white, so the Iranians come across as very real people, some likeable, some not, acting and inter-reacting with the American group. Exoticism is rather in the feeling of foreignness, the feeling of abroad; Chloe feels “a kind of rapture to see that no matter where you were in the world, you were there, same styles of clouds up above, same ants and pebbles underfoot …

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