Daisy Johnson’s 2018 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Everything Under, rewrites the Oedipus myth into a mother-daughter story set in an eerie, waterlogged world.
Daisy Johnson’s event at the Cambridge Literary Festival on Fate, Language and Love was a wide-ranging conversation on myth, language, women and writing, through which Johnson was deftly led by Anna Leszkiewicz, the culture editor of the New Statesman. The discussion centred around Johnson’s 2018 Man Booker-shortlisted novel, Everything Under, her eerie take on the Oedipus myth.
Everything Under transports ‘Oedipus’ from ancient Greece to dark, dirty, derelict, mouldering backwaters, where it becomes the story of Gretel and her mother, Sarah, along with Marcus/Margot, who provides the dark heart of the tale. Johnson said that she wanted to write a re-telling, inspired by works such as Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. The Oedipus myth provides the main thread for Everything Under, but Johnson also weaves in fairy and folk tales: there’s an overt nod to Hansel and Gretel and the Bonak, a mythical thing that slides in and out of the narrative, and brings to mind Beowulf’s Grendel.
The treacherous, knotted landscapes of folk and fairy tales also influence the setting of the novel: a vivid, horrible, waterlogged world, where bloated debris and bodies bob in the wake of boats that are ‘green and orange with rust and mould’. As with Fen, Johnson’s 2017 short story collection, Everything Under seethes with life (and death): badgers, rats, dogs, chicken, and the small animals young Gretel traps in snares that she lays around her canal-boat home. The world oozes with smells and sensations: the scent of Sarah’s rich, meaty cooking; dead animals ‘slick with lard’ ready for butchery; wild garlic; ‘fish, planks of wood, plastic bags’; Sarah’s hand-rolled cigarettes, fresh beer, body odour. Johnson said that when she writes she always starts with a place, which, in this case, came to her on a canal trip with her partner. However, she said that she could not have the waterscape in front of her whilst she wrote: ‘[I] have to be out of [a] place … to describe it,’ to imagine it into being, she told the audience.
In this landscape, a body can fall into the water and drift out to sea, myth thrives, imagined creatures can come to life
Johnson also observed that the waterways were a useful setting, because they provide a hermetically sealed world that is essential to so many myths and tragedies. On the rivers, self-sufficiency thrives, electricity and phones are scarce, news travels from person to person, boat to boat, and murder, arson and kidnappings go unreported because inhabitants mistrust outsiders. In this landscape, a body can fall into the water and drift out to sea, myth thrives, imagined creatures can come to life: ‘A person can convince themselves of anything …’
Like the rivers, language in Everything Under appears fluid, mutable. Gretel and Sarah have their own language, incorporating uncanny onomatopoeia such as ‘harpiedoodle’, ‘dead-sprung’ and ‘duvduv’. Perhaps their most powerful creation is ‘Bonak’, a thing that causes boat-wrecking storms, forest fires. It’s clearly an invention. Or is it? There are ‘rumours’ from the north, hacked-up heifers, missing children, a ghostly canal thief. Sarah talks of seeing ‘a thin man … an animal with the face of a woman’. Is Bonak merely a word that represents a character’s guilt, fear and shame, or has the word itself invoked a real-life monster?
Johnson explained that she’s interested in the way language shapes our identity, citing the 2016 film Arrival (where the time-less language of an alien race allows those who understand it to see the future) as an influence. Sarah and Gretel create, and are consequences of, their language: ‘We were aliens. We were like the last people on earth. If – in any sense – language determined how we thought then I could never have been any other way than the way I am.’ Gretel says. Older Gretel has become a lexicographer, defining words for a dictionary. But language remains tricksy: index cards proliferate for one word, definition is full of ‘hearsay, guesswork’. Later, Sarah slips into Alzheimer’s and Gretel watches as ‘the words leave you’.
Instead of ‘boxed [female] characters’ Johnson wanted to write about women who were ‘gluttinous and angry’
In the ancient myth, on hearing a prediction that his son will kill him, Laius, Oedipus’ father, binds Oedipus’ feet and leaves him to die in the mountains. His action precipitates tragedy as Oedipus, hearing the same prophecy, leaves his adoptive home to avoid killing his father and marrying his mother, but unwittingly does so anyway. Everything Under re-explores this tragedy in a post-Freudian world. Johnson’s prophet is human (rather than a conduit of the gods), who tries to use her foretelling powers to prevent doom. But she eventually realises that her words can’t prevent disaster – it happens anyway. In the novel, characters might think that, in the same way as they shift their floating homes, they can re-shape their world, re-define concepts such as families and gender. But it’s illusory. Fate cannot be re-defined, it cannot be avoided.
Gretel’s first-person narrative dominates Everything Under, but it’s very close to the second person, straining towards, eddying around the central ‘you’. Sarah, an ‘awful, wonderful, terrifying’ creation’; a destructive, selfish, greedy, lusty character, who kicks her daughter out to sleep on the roof of their boat so that she can have some sheesh (alone) time, so that she can have sex; who leaves her boyfriend and abandons her first-born in a wheelie bin for a reason even she can’t properly understand. Who leaves Greta to fend for herself in foster care. When Leszkiewicz asked about Johnson’s female-centric fiction (in Fen, there are no male characters), Johnson explained that she felt there was not enough literature, enough films or TV with ‘I’ carrying characters’, where women were protagonists. Instead of ‘boxed [female] characters’ she wanted to write about women who were ‘gluttinous and angry’. This perfectly describes Sarah – a furious presence whose appetites are much the ‘cause’ of the novel’s central tragedy as some pre-determined agenda.
The whole talk was a fascinating insight into Johnson’s novel and her writing. Johnson revealed that she draws inspiration from everywhere: Ancient Greece; The Brothers Grimm; her experiences growing up in the remote countryside. She used horror films such as the Babadook and A Quiet Place to help structure her novel, and the art of Francesca Woodman to inspire her aesthetic. I wished I’d been able to hear the talk before I read Everything Under because (and I say this in a very small voice) I disliked the book on first reading: I found it too dark, the setting too dingy, the characters unlikeable, the almost-second-person narrative alienating. However, I read it again in order to write this piece and appreciated what an inventive, clever book it is. For this, as well as Johnson’s views on greedy female characters, and her finding inspiration in both high and low art, it was a wonderful event. Daisy Johnson came across as an engaging and warily open writer, with much to say about writing and language and women.