“Everything Under,” Daisy Johnson’s 2018 Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel that relocates Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex” to modern-day England and reinterprets the story through what some may call a feminist lens, has been praised for its daring alone. Well, here’s that pat on the back.
Now, on to evaluating Johnson’s story itself — or, the point at which praise for Johnson ceases. Instead of mining the depths of a classic like “Oedipus” in pursuit of contemporary insights, Johnson opts to skim the story for its most base content — the fated patricide and incest — and exploits their sensationalism. Johnson makes the most of what she’s skimmed, smearing it into the likeness of a novel. Yet all that offers her audience in terms of a reading experience is the sensation of being dragged through the muck.
Still, the opening chapters of “Everything Under” will beguile, like an off-key siren song. Gretel, the main character who arguably did not deserve to be (more on that later), narrates in relentless second person, employs a relentless active voice and harnesses a tone of relentless accusation. The addressee of the second person narration and the tireless accusations is Gretel’s mother, who raised Gretel in poverty on a canal boat only to leave her daughter when she turned 16. Two-thirds of Johnson’s parallel sequences in “Everything Under” slogs through this fraught relationship: one chronicling Gretel’s search for her mother and the other capturing their continued dysfunctionality even after Gretel finds her.
For a short while, Johnson’s narrative techniques work, ensnaring readers in the anxiety, apprehension and resentment Gretel has felt since being abandoned. Soon enough, however, the sharp edge of Gretel’s narration dulls with overuse. What once read as rhythm now induces the flat, chronic pain of a headache. And once the headache sets in, Johnson’s borrowed, unremarkable observations (e.g. “Children are supposed to leave their parents … Parents are not supposed to leave their children”), for all their writerly flair, lose their disguise and their charm.
Midway through the novel, another story — that of Margot, Oedipus’s counterpart — takes over. Anesthetized by Gretel’s redundancy, not to mention the unwavering wretchedness of most every other character (especially Gretel’s mother) up to this point, readers may mistake this shift in favor of multidimensional character Margot for a breakthrough. Of course, it cannot last. Gretel has commandeered this story from the beginning, and it’s too late for a coup. This internal battle for control of the story and its unfavorable result illustrates the broader identity crisis stifling “Everything Under.”
One of Johnson’s tasks as the re-interpreter of a classic is to supply readers with a useful lens through which to re-examine the original story, one that offers new insights. It might be useful to imagine the re-interpreter as the optometrist and their readers the patients seated before the many lenses of the phoropter. It is the author’s job, in this instance, to help their reader see something new and see it clearly, which is why Margot’s arc stands out. In Margot’s story, Johnson reevaluates “Oedipus” through the lens of gender, and readers have a fresh encounter with the malleability of gender: Specifically, the ways gender can be weaponized, both in one’s favor and to one’s detriment. For the rest of the novel, Johnson struggles to pick an equally apt lens (motherhood, family and fate are attempted), and the dizzying confusion of lenses makes it nearly impossible to see anything else valuable in Johnson’s reinterpretation, compounding the reader’s headache.
A prominent innovation in Johnson’s retelling of “Oedipus,” likely spawned by her reliance on bewildering her audience in order to maintain their attention, is the canal thief. Or, as Gretel and her mother call it, the “Bonak”: a menacing, elusive beast that stalks, steals and commits murder along the canal on which they lived. Like Gretel’s angst, the repetitive allusions to the Bonak quickly lose their edge, so instead of a thread, it reads like a running joke. By the time readers reach a climactic point in the novel, in which Gretel and her mother face the Bonak, it’s less of an epic battle and more of a reminiscence of those scenes that frequent Christmas specials of children’s programs, where, despite the cynical characters’ doubts, the real Santa has a cameo. It’s a little manipulative, a little confusing and very difficult to take seriously.
By the time Johnson unhands you, reader, and you are done being dragged through the muck, you’ll just be happy you survived. Then, you can still recover with other, worthier Man Booker prize competitors, with other, worthwhile reinterpretations of classics. But ultimately, consider dodging this bullet in the first place.