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Waking Up to a Nightmare

Like many of her readers these days, the characters in Diane Johnson’s novels expend considerable energy weighing their dark presentiment that the world is a treacherous and malevolent place against their bright hope that order and reason might prevail long enough so that everything may, if only temporarily, turn out for the best. Plucky and openhearted, her heroines often attribute their appealing personalities to the fact that they are Californian. What a Golden State it must be to have produced these remarkable beings, women gifted with so many apparent contradictions so usefully combined—paranoia and pragmatism, sociability and reserve, a functioning superego happily coexistent with a libidinous attraction to the glittery lure of adventure and high romance.

However thoughtful and intelligent, her protagonists prefer to avoid taking anything too seriously, particularly subjects and experiences that routinely move others to piety, sanctimony, sentimentality, or terror—for example, sex, politics, marital fidelity, physical discomfort, and danger. What gives these fictional creations their charm is their acute observations, their ability to draw amusing and perceptive conclusions about their surroundings, their unpredictable passions, arcane bodies of knowledge, and unusual philosophical views. Amy Ellen Hawkins, the wealthy Palo Alto dot-com executive at the center of L’Affaire (2003), is not only an expert skier and a believer in Prince Kropotkin’s ideas on the benefits of mutual aid, but the kind of person who can enter a party at a chic French ski resort with a sensitivity to her own mixed emotions that tellingly mirrors responses we ourselves may have entertained on similar occasions:

Amy had her usual sense of cocktail party hopefulness, knowing intellectually that the room would be as full of fools and bores as any party, but always with the belief that among these particular people some would be worldly, kindly, and friendly, and that kindred spirits would emerge. Why wouldn’t they? She struggled to suppress a surge of love for them—not these particular people, but for the powers of human organization, our gregarious natures, the kindliness of our impulses to share food and talk to each other, the sweetness of agreeing to dress up for others. Sometimes she saw these impulses as the product of the struggle for power, as Darwin might have, or at least Herbert Spencer, but for tonight she was touched by the sight of humans wishing to be liked by others and to make them lovely things to eat.

Ultimately, what’s winning about Johnson’s characters is their ability to view their fellow humans with both ironic detachment and a degree of tolerance and forgiveness that precludes the moralistic and judgmental. Perhaps only in the novels of Jane Austen have we met women who so persuasively display the benefits of cultivating a cool eye mediated by a warm heart. Johnson’s heroines make entertaining traveling companions, even after (or especially when) we have read enough of her work to suspect that our pleasant journeys may culminate in scenes of murder and mayhem.

The author of eleven novels, Johnson has created some of literature’s more memorable characters, from Bingo Edwards, the Los Angeles housewife whose surface contentment is incinerated by the wildfires that, in Burning (1971), threaten her house, to Ivy Tarro, whose minor medical problem hurtles her into the parallel universe of the modern hospital in Health and Happiness (1990); from Anne-Sophie d’Argel, the Parisian antique dealer who, in Le Mariage (2000), falls into the eccentric orbit of a film director and his American wife, to Isabel Walker, the former film student whose sojourn in Paris, chronicled in Le Divorce (1997), acquaints her with the mysteries of l’amour and the even more mystifying intricacies of French inheritance laws.

In recent books, many of Johnson’s characters have been rudely awakened by eye-opening and anxiety-provoking encounters with a foreign culture. Le Divorce, Le Mariage, and L’Affaire form a trilogy exploring the often very funny interactions and misunderstandings between Americans and the French, whose self-enchanted Old World slumber these lively emissaries from the New World arrive to disturb. Persian Nights (1987), set in Iran on the eve of the Khomeini revolution, has one of the most economical openings I know of, a two-sentence smart bomb aimed to detonate the heroine’s (and the reader’s) unease:

They’re talking about you,” said Abbas Mowlavi, noticing Chloe Fowler’s glance behind him along the road, where the shrouded women peered at her, the whites of their eyes gleaming balefully out of the shadows of their veils. The veiled figures seemed to Chloe menacing, like the silhouettes of vultures, and there was menace in the unfamiliar cadence of the murmuring voices.

But though the earlier novels stayed closer to home, the forces of chaos were no less imminent or eager to generate havoc and pain. Living in a housing project with her housekeeper, the resilient single mother in Johnson’s third novel, The Shadow Knows (1974), opens her narrative with an observation that could well serve as an epigraph for much of Johnson’s fiction:

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. The wife of my old neighbor Mr. Probst slashed her wrists the week before Christmas, and I saw her the week before that, and her life was all right with her then. People get sudden notions.

Last week our lives were all right here. Things haven’t been going exactly well for me lately—not well at all, really—but we were safe, and we try to keep believing in love and harmony. But now I think we are going to be murdered. Just like that. It’s not what you’d expect living quietly in North Sacramento.

This awareness of the dark shapes perpetually flitting past the peripheral edge of our field of vision made Diane Johnson the ideal choice to write the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, with its dazzling vision of the horror that can lurk just beneath the surface of the cozy family unit. The film’s most memorable scene—the one in which the hero’s weeks of furious composition are revealed to have produced a stack of paper on which he’s obsessively typed “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy”—was invented by Johnson, and does not exist in King’s novel. It’s very much a writer’s nightmare, a demonic apparition born from the white desert of the blank page. And Johnson’s fiction brings a charged, almost fizzy electricity to that moment when—or the moment before—the nightmare turns real.

In Le Mariage, that nightmare involves the specter of territoriality and nationalism disguised as a highly civilized European concern for local hunting rights and designated cultural treasures. In Persian Nights, chaos erupts during a brief intermission of lawlessness between two long-lived authoritarian regimes. More often, the source of disorder and disruption is not social or political upheaval, but rather the demented acting-out of a lone psychopath. In her screenplay for The Shining, the demonic figure is the patriarch willing to murder his son because someone or something—in this case, his own psychosis—demands blood sacrifice. In what may be Johnson’s best-known scene of delirious turmoil, the dramatic climax of Le Divorce, a killer seizes hostages and terrorizes visitors to EuroDisney in the global-corporate version of the mall or post-office shoot-out that now haunts the American psyche.

Yet another bad dream that recurs in Johnson’s novels is the one in which disquieting circumstances and accidental discoveries lead a woman to suspect that the person she knows best and loves most is not just a stranger, but quite possibly a monster with a shady secret life. This plot turn—familiar to readers of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and the variant versions of Bluebeard—reflects a fear born of fantasy and experience, especially female fantasy and female experience. The beloved husband may turn out to be the madman dragging your son up the mountain to the sacrificial altar, or the would-be ax murderer chasing you and the kid through the snowy hedge maze.

Diane Johnson’s new novel, Lulu in Marrakech, features yet another romance in which the heroine comes to question not only the reliability but the essential veracity and identity of her lover. Who exactly is Ian Drumm, the dashing British entrepreneur with a villa in Morocco, whom Lulu Sawyer met in Bosnia, where he was participating in a humanitarian aid project, and where she was working undercover for the CIA? Like other Johnson heroines, Lulu has grown up in California and possesses a lively, honest, independent spirit; she values male attention and has a talent for loyal female friendship; and she senses that moderate paranoia may be the correct response to the capriciously malicious but otherwise unfathomable dilemma in which she finds herself. But the differences between Johnson’s earlier books and Lulu in Marrakech reflect the extent to which, over time, the spirit of menace (personal, political, familial) has shape-shifted into something more fearsome, as well as a painful new sensitivity to the fact that for Americans abroad today, the moral high ground has shrunk to a narrow ledge precariously balanced over a swamp of solipsism, incompetence, misguidedness, and moral ambiguity.

Lulu in Marrakech, which sends its CIA-op heroine on a North African mission that combines vacation with some low-tech human intelligence gathering in the Arab world, begins with a passage in which the book’s central themes are broadly addressed, though not until the final chapters will we understand the significance of what Lulu has been trying, from the start, to convey:

During training for my present job, I had been particularly struck by a foundation document of tradecraft, “The Role of Self-Deception in Prediction Failures.” It argues that Americans are particularly prone to self-deception and that our ability to fool ourselves is greater than the ability of others to fool us. History shows plenty of examples, but it’s my own that’s made me understand the author’s point. Am I myself more gullible than other Americans? Perhaps these are the very qualities I was recruited for: gullibility, and the rigidity of my belief in pragmatism—for I am determined not to let ideology, whether of love or patriotism, get the better of me again.

At first glance, this might seem like one of the breezy self-introductions with which Johnson’s heroines so often draw us into her novels. But by the book’s end, this paragraph will suggest a search for the origins of a calamity of a sort all too familiar to the readers of the daily paper, though not, until now, to readers of Johnson’s fiction.

Within a few pages Lulu answers (without confronting directly) the reader’s sensible question: How could this delightful and intelligent young woman, whose liberal California parents would surely disapprove if they knew, wind up working for an agency whose performance hasn’t much improved since Chloe Fowler described it, in Persian Nights, as “some sort of comedy team who never could get it straight about which thing to blow up”? Lulu asks questions but not too many and is dangerously incurious about certain fundamental matters. She wants things to go smoothly, she wants to please, she wants to “succeed professionally—as predicted for the paradigmatic young person sought by the Agency,” and she’s enchanted by the prospect of adventure and exotic travel. In her thirties, aware that her life isn’t “leading anywhere,” Lulu has allowed herself to be recruited for a job that promises to combine a chance to serve her country with the opportunity to work on socially beneficial programs—for example, a campaign designed to promote women’s literacy. She’s yet another innocent abroad, and innocence proves again to be a precondition for disaster:

As to my employers, I didn’t know what they saw in me, yet I was prepared to defer to them; I expected to discover, eventually, some property in myself that I would recognize as validating their view. Meantime I just felt like me, a little skeptical but willing to learn.

The problem is that poor Lulu is better suited to her job than she realizes. She’s entirely too eager to believe what she’s told, and, like the agency she works for, is prone to getting critical details wrong. On the plane to Morocco, Lulu forms—with unfortunate consequences—a reductive and inaccurate picture of a fellow passenger, Suma, a young French-Algerian woman fleeing France, where she allegedly has been the intended victim of an honor-killing by her brother. Upon landing, Lulu fears that the genial and harmless American tea-shop owner who, in Ian’s absence, comes to collect her at the airport may be planning to kidnap her and prevent her from doing her job, whatever that job might be.

Lulu is conscious of her own shortcomings, an awareness underlined by her experience in Morocco:

This had been my whole life experience, to radiate some inadvertent primness, to be sheltered from what everyone else knew, me noticing only belatedly, if ever, the hanky panky to which everyone else was drawn as horses to water. Alas, this credulity was not a good profile for someone in my profession, and, for that matter, may explain why I was drawn to it, seeking the feeling of being for once in the know.

And her somewhat willed blindness to the probable reasons for Ian’s neglect and erratic ardor is, she knows, symptomatic of her larger inability to grasp the realities of the culture she has been dispatched to report on:

In a village: Were these people the desperately poor or were they the relatively well-off?… Was the water clean? I didn’t know and couldn’t find out. The girls who came in to wash the dishes in Ian’s kitchen came from such a village—what did they say when they went home? Did the lavish hot water amaze them? I didn’t know and couldn’t find that out either. It was as if the Europeans and the Moroccans were each afflicted with an eye disease that prevented them from seeing each other—it was the perennial eye infection of colonialism. The girls in the kitchen played the wailing music of popular songs. Tuneless and anguished, it drifted through the gardens, its passionate rhythms suggesting that frenzy lurked beneath the placid surface of comfortable daily piety.

If Lulu’s relationship with Ian is not the besotted romance of which she dreamed in the Balkans, it nonetheless provides her with a convenient cover that allows her to prolong her stay in Marrakech, which turns out to be quite pleasant. She forms companionable friendships with the wife of a British poet staying at Ian’s villa, with the gay American and his pothead partner whose tea shop she helps convert into a lending library, and with Colonel Barka, her espionage contact, whose allegiances and intentions are as unclear as the rest of Lulu’s mission. A ready-made expatriate community is eager to entertain her in their “showplace riad[s],” and all she has to do is to keep a low profile and exchange local gossip and unfocused speculation at clandestine meetings with the colonel. There are shopping trips to the medina, tea and drinks at the Hotel Mamounia, and visits to local sites—pleasures intermittently and inconveniently interrupted by unexplained explosions and suicide bombings averted in the nick of time.

It’s an idyll from which we wait for Lulu to awaken, as she does, in stages. Meanwhile, she can make seductively astute observations, such as this reflection on the theme of bargaining:

Why do we hate to bargain? Westerners, I mean. I suppose because it implies that a falsehood is the basis of the transaction—the first asking price is a lie. Whereas we value candor and relying on each other’s word, which would mean you state the true price right away. And there is an unpleasant metaphor of victory and defeat embedded in the bargain—you finally defeat your adversary, yet you really know you are defeated, because he is getting the price he secretly meant to get all along.

As the novel progresses, the reader will, like Lulu, come to understand that the marketplace is the most harmless and inconsequential of the places in which such dramas—involving truthfulness and lying, victory and defeat—are daily being enacted.

Eventually, Suma’s supposedly homicidal brother shows up, and, just as inevitably, Lulu’s own luck turns. When her boss, Sefton Taft, arrives in Marrakech, accompanied by two agents on a mission that (as we instantly understand, even if Lulu chooses not to) can only end horrifically, Lulu’s paid vacation turns into a hell of botched covert actions, murder, and attacks of conscience and guilt unresolved either by punishment or by absolution:

We had no one to say sorry to. We were sorry, though. I, at least, was anguished—you can’t just go along killing people. I hadn’t planned on that. In our training, the suggestion was out there that target practice and elementary pharmacology were all “just in case” and that such things were almost never needed.

What makes Lulu in Marrakech extraordinary is its evenhandedness and bracing clarity about subjects—Islamist terrorism, the American government’s enthusiasm for the kidnapping and torture of the guilty and innocent alike—that so frequently inspire irrational and extreme responses. Though it addresses questions of prejudice and culturally induced blindness, the novel itself is remarkably free of cant or received opinions. Characteristically, Lulu’s aversion to Muslim fundamentalism is tempered by her reasonable reservations about other religions:

After what we had seen in the Balkans, I wasn’t reassured about Christians either. At one point we were taken to see the bones of the Srebrenica victims, neatly polished and bundled to be returned to their families, Muslim boys killed by Christian men. Then there are the Hindu crazies, setting fire to trains and mosques to burn alive the nonbelievers. Are there any virtuous religions? It really doesn’t seem so. It almost seems that religion makes you wicked.

Everything is more complicated and nuanced than it initially appears to be, especially given Lulu’s willingness to consider both sides of most debates:

I thought about Gazi and the other Muslim women in their cloisters—in former times in actual purdah—and could imagine the desperation and intrigues that must have festered there. I pitied them, but I couldn’t scorn them, since I was in thrall myself, to my “job,” and sexually, to Ian, an enthrallment of my own making, dictated by nature, maybe, or a response to the loneliness of my role.

Gazi, the Muslim wife whom Lulu and her friends condescend to for her willingness to wear the veil, will turn out to be far tougher and more sophisticated than her Western acquaintances, and to possess the sort of practical survival skills of which Lulu can only dream.

Except for the children, there are no innocents in Johnson’s novel. The plot turns in ways that remind us that the crimes routinely committed on both sides of the Arab–Western conflict are not, sad to say, the figments of a writer’s imagination. There really are maniacs enlisting children and teenagers to deliver the maximum amount of death to the maximum number of blameless people, just as there really are “black sites,” secret prisons throughout the world where we interrogate and torture the kidnapped victims of “extraordinary rendition.”

For all their seriousness, and their bloodshed and brutality, Diane Johnson’s novels are viewed as comedies—partly because they’re so witty, partly because of their ironic take on social and cultural behavior, and partly because they end (as we expect from comedy) with the sense that, after a turbulent storm, some semblance of order has been restored.

It’s not quite like that at the end of Lulu in Marrakech, and it’s no surprise that a novel about Americans in the Arab world should be more troubling and less cleanly resolved than one about, say, Americans in Paris. Unlike the protagonists of most of Johnson’s previous novels, Lulu has been not merely a well-intentioned visitor who, through no fault of her own, becomes a hapless bystander at a scene of chaos and carnage. Rather, she has been involved as a more or less active, or at least complicit, participant in killing. When her plane takes off at the end, we may recall how the novel began, and predict that Lulu will keep trying to explain— and understand—what she did in Morocco.

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