Language as Subject and Object in Everything Under
Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under (short-listed for the Man Booker Prize of 2018) opens on a mother-daughter relationship strained by the onset of a fickle form of dementia and a complicated, 16-year-long estrangement. Gretel updates dictionaries for a living, and shares a secluded forest cottage with her ailing mother. While Gretel’s mother methodically destroys her daughter’s home, Gretel begins to unravel their histories in an attempt to make sense of her family’s dark past.
The structure of this novel is a sheer delight. The opening chapter reveals time and space to be mercurial, directionless and wild, with only the titles of subsections (“The Hunt,” “The Cottage,” “The River,” “Sarah”) as signposts to character and timeline. The central mysteries of Everything Under are Gretel’s own questions about the veracity of her childhood memories. Nested within the other timelines are smaller mysteries, delivered in distinct and captivating points of view. As each smaller mystery is solved, a new one is revealed.
Johnson’s language is lyrical and spare; the chapters are propulsive: short and satisfying. This is perhaps owing to her mastery of the short story — her first book, Fen, is full of twisty, dark folk tales set in similarly marshy English landscapes. Those stories are retellings of familiar narratives, in part. They are also wholly new — grounded in a world as frightening and familiar as the one we face every day. Though there is a timelessness that runs through both Fen and Everything Under, the physical and psychological reality of each character is astutely, carefully rendered through a contemporary, queer lens.
As the mysteries unspool in Everything Under, they expose complicated and underlying philosophical questions of free will and fate. One family is blown apart by what appears to be prophecy, but at each difficult fork in the road, the characters believe they are deciding for themselves how to best move forward. In one instance, a character is given disturbing news about her future, so she decides to simply deny fate the power of the truth: “What had been said was not a truth only a suggestion of one way it might go. And if she knew what was coming she was certain she could avoid it. Like a car crash.”
Most of the decisions in the book are made in this same gentle, brave spirit, and regardless of outcome, seem like the most noble of choices. The tragedy is not in the darkness of what eventually befalls these characters, but rather in the fleeting beauty of the moments in which they reach for one another and miss. They make their choices, move through the consequences, and then construct a narrative to retell (or revise). The recountings transform reality into myth, little by little, until the original story is forgotten altogether.
Personal, local legends abound, and morph into one another. One such story features the Bonak, a creature that prowls the canals. It begins as a myth, a fireside tale of a boogeyman, and then surfaces in different forms until it becomes reality. Like the prophecies that haunt the characters in Everything Under, this creature, both horrifying and ever-present, lurks beneath the surface of the river and between the trees, always near the water but not always of it.
Memory is a slippery thing in the lives of Gretel and her family. The personal language she and her mother form when she is a child is designed to communicate the immediate, intimate needs of two people separated from the rest of the world. When Gretel tries to assimilate into public-school culture, she finds herself at the mercy of a language that exists nowhere outside her relationship with her mother:
“It was language — our language — that tripped me up at school. I told one of the teachers I needed sheesh time, shouted at a boy that he was a harpiedoodle. Over all those years you never told me you were creating a different language, applicable only to that time, to us. I hacked those words that you had given me out, erased them. Lost them over the years so that now — looking back — they feel as foreign in my mouth as they must have to those other children.”
As the mysteries unspool in Everything Under, they expose complicated and underlying philosophical questions of free will and fate.
As Gretel fights her way into adulthood, she forges an existence fully dependent upon the creation of new words — new language to lead her back and forth in time. While she edits dictionaries and takes care of her addled, newly sober mother, she demands truth from a woman who has done her best to forget it.
Gretel herself remembers little of what happened on the river in her childhood. “Forgetting is,” she says, “I think, a form of protection.” At times, it feels as though the protection that forgetting affords is more dangerous than revelation. At times, it feels as though the stories that unfold are such an integral part of Everything Under’s universe that revelation doesn’t even matter. In any case, Johnson’s debut novel is a gorgeous exploration of fate and family identity, a marvel in language and form.
REVIEWED BY JACK KAULFUS
Jack Kaulfus is a trans writer living and teaching in Austin, Texas. Jack’s first collection of stories, Tomorrow or Forever, is now out with Transgress Press. To read more of their writing, both online and in print, visit jackaulfus.com.