Sunday, March 13, 2011

Persian Nights by Diane Johnson

An American ditz contemplates frivolous romances on the eve of the Iranian revolution

Why is not Diane Johnson acclaimed as one of our finest American novelists? Persian Nights is a skillful display of craft, containing numerous interesting characters, a concrete evocation of time and place, a complex plot and an engine powered by a deep down revulsion for American hypocrisy. Also, the novel is a good background primer on the modern politics of Iran. Finally, it’s very funny. Maybe I’m getting overexcited as I’ve only read three Diane Johnson novels. Friends have assured me she has in fact written some bad ones. But the three I’ve read have been very good.

Persian Nights is about Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who gets sent to Iran for a few months accidentally without her husband. The good news for Chloe is that her lover will be there. The bad news is that the repressive Iranian government is on the verge of being overthrown.  The Americans who prop up the hated Shah and the wealthy Iranians who host the Americans are in real danger of physical harm.

Iran is presented as a gracious cruel misogynistic society. Bad things happen in the middle of the night and it’s quite rude to bring it up the next day. The Americans, all associated with the hospital in Shiraz, are presented as well meaning oafs, appalled by the ignorance and the poverty, but their top priorities seem to be love affairs, drunkeness and caviar.

The structure is farce, especially the big scene at Persepolis. Are there deep feelings here? Yes, but glancingly and in the background. Horrible things happen – innocents and not so innocents die and their deaths seemingly make no dent in Chloe’s pretty little head. Near the end, the threads of the plot tie up a little too head spinningly, but they do in fact tie up, with a few surprises.

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