The places we are born come back.
Any decisions we make are only mirages, ghosts to convince us of free will.
It’s a big thing nowadays: authors funnelling contemporary stories through a mythological framework. To name a few examples in passing: Kamila Shamsie (Home Fire; reviewed here by Paul); Madeleine Miller (The Song of Achilles, Circe); Ali Smith (Girl Meets Boy, as part of the Canongate Myths series, which enlisted other luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, and Jeanette Winterson in modernizing a series of familiar historical fables). Those contemporary retellings of Sophocles, Homer, and Ovid emphatically establish the parallels reverberating through “the human tale,” put old, eternal truths in a modern context, and lend at least a patina of enduring gloss. The paradoxical takeaway being that to suggest the mores of the age, and the apparently unique elements making up the modern world, are merely surface variations of ultimately immutable destinies, which can be conflated to equate post-millennium lives with something much greater — foundational myths — delivers both a sense of a reassuring, inexorable fault-line and the harrowing possibility that we’re simply different players consigned to playing very old, ill-fated roles. Yes, we’re given a new wardrobe and allowed to wander ever-evolving scenery amidst contemporary architecture, distracted by interchangeable factors. But we are, finally and inescapably, beholden to the same old underpinning scenarios to which we must all inevitably succumb, fated to undergo unoriginal, unremarkable tribulations, running through the beats of our indistinct stories which have all been told before.
As framing devices, the bonuses to the author are obvious: what might be considered a slight tale is instantaneously, by announcing its basic homage to an ur-narrative that has endured for centuries, conferred with an esteem the text mightn’t otherwise possess.
Gretel, a lexicographer, searches for a mother, Sarah, who sired Gretel during a careening, alcoholic early-adulthood, and who may well be dead. The two shared their own argot (which could be deemed to represent the unique corollary shared by kin, or the ostracized) while living marginal existences as part of a community outside traditional civilian life, full of BFG-esque words like “harpiedoodle” and “effing.” This rejection of common forms and the cultivation of a bespoke language doesn’t effect any kind of mother/daughter bond; rather, it cements their obsolescence from a world they have little interest in, and forces them together as the only two members of a fractious union (latterly even more so due to her mother’s already ravening onset of Alzheimer’s). Another word both share is more a concession to a looming specter that lingers in the hinterlands between the real world and their own, something called the “Bonak” (a largely unsuccessful device that feels a bit like a half-baked CGI nemesis), which by turns suggests itself as a demonic manifestation of calamitous misdeeds, a named shapelessness that embodies all kinds of dread (although it appears at times to be a phallic antagonist). It probably simply means death, disintegration, irrevocable finality. But to Gretel her mother possesses the truest sense of who she still feels she is — so what of that sense of self once her mother can no longer access it?
There is much reference in Everything Under to unseen perils lurking just out of sight, including a canal thief which I rightly or wrongly assumed to be a hint at the murdered father reincarnate as something diffuse and menacing and hellbent on some kind of inchoate revenge. It’s the kind of mythic presence that pervades the lives of the canal-dwelling sub-culture. Gretel is eventually sped through a condensed introduction to adulthood on her sixteenth birthday (not actually her birthday; her mother has the dates wrong) via a restaurant and a dancefloor, and is then abandoned at the stables at which both lived, an insecure arrangement that had continued their off-the-map living.
There were the years of trying to find you. At the weekends I’d catch the bus to places I thought you might have gone. Trawl around asking after you. I had the photo I have now and I’d show it to everyone I met. I’d say, She’s short, shorter than us; she’s got grey hair and grey eyes. It was hard not to see you everywhere. Out of the windows of moving buses, down supermarket aisles, at tables in cafes or pubs, in cars at traffic lights. I saw you walking or running, sitting, talking, laughing with your head tipped forward against your chest. I chased women down the street but they were never you. You had gone without a trace. You were a ghost in my brain, in my stomach. I began to wonder if you had ever really existed at all.
In other words: Gretel’s mother is in her absence becoming a creation whose non-appearance can only broaden her influence and potency. By pursuing her ghost, Gretel can’t escape an adolescence arrested at the moment of her abandonment.
Via this and two other interwoven plot strands the search for Sarah ensues, and the intricate connective tissue linking all the characters in the novel is unravelled and rebound. A character called Fiona, a cross-dressing man, grafts herself to a family in lieu of her own; said family contains within it the adopted Margot (the first child Sarah abandoned) and her adoptive parents, Roger and Laura. Gretel visits the latter pair, led there in her search for Sarah via Margot. Margot had suddenly left the family home many years earlier never to return, and Gretel’s arrival instils hope in the abandoned parents, that both Sarah and Margot, now Marcus (this is all a little easier to follow in the novel), are together somewhere, and that Gretel’s successful pursuit would lead to their own long-overdue reunion.
As a child, Fiona had fascinated Margot upon her sudden arrival as a new next-door neighbour, and Margot’stroublingly obsessive proclivity for the newcomer draws the lone transsexual into the family. Fiona is soon enjoying regular meals at the house as Margot follows her around; Roger and Laura are less enamoured of Fiona’s apparent mood-swings and occasional moments of reclusive apathy. But the child of the house defers to Fiona above anyone, and completely invests in her eccentric, unique character, seeing in her the allure of the fellow misfit. This includes accepting at face-value Fiona’s apparent powers as a seer, assuming that everything she says is inevitable.
Fiona, in fact, perceives the murder by Margot of her father; misapprehending this to mean that she will soon kill Roger, Fiona forces Margot to leave, and Margot, refusing to question this perception, does so. She then fulfils her portended destiny down by the canal, soon drawn towards and befriended by a blind barge-owner called Charlie, who just happens to be Margot’s illegitimate father.
The novel looks at means of breaking and reattaching often tentative but inescapable bonds: language, gender, family. The seeming point of harnessing the Oedipal myth here is to state the nature of allegiance in an age when the idea of both family and gender has never been as fractious or volatile. To whom do we belong if not ourselves, the book asks; and yet, in this case, discovering who we are and reclaiming a Self can lead us on a precarious and labyrinthine quest we might not even manage to successfully negotiate in pursuit of this basic desire. How much of us lies in our XX/XY designation versus the person our family perpetuates, and how do either stack up against our own self-perceptions? This is territory that ironically tends to provoke polar and absolute responses — the grey areas in this and all matters are always the truer locations. Everything Under happily dispenses with binary preoccupations. (Italics mine.)
In the scree of trees crows gathered and then broke apart like jigsaw pieces. It was easier — while not running — for Margot to imagine a life for herself there, a whole new body she could step inside. She was his child or — no — his sister’s child; her mother was dead; she was staying until she was old enough to leave. And, even then, she would visit him; she would help him. Days would be the way they were, slow, easy. He would teach her to cook and to whittle lures, to fish with them. Maybe, even, one day they would move the boat. He would teach her to drive and — when they grew tired of living beneath the shadow of the factory, the town – they would drive away. How does a person give up everything they know? They find something to replace it. He called her son or boy and she thought: maybe. Why not?
One of Johnson’s persuasive contentions is that we either have a hand in the creation of our selves, or we defer catastrophically to an identity curated by others (another book on this year’s Booker longlist, Sabrina, goes even further in examining the mutability of our fate at the annihilating hands of other people). One of the more intriguing and compelling threads the novel throws up is the malleability of gender as pertaining to different evolutions of nested identity, the leaving behind of not only a corroded former iteration but also the dispensing with a gender. I’m hardly an aficionado of the nuances of gender fluidity, nor the deeply complex issues surrounding the matter, but as someone who has always taken it for granted that gender, whilst fixed, is down to us all to self-fulfill and vacillate across and around (biology irrespective; we should surely be able to inhabit our own mental selves). This part of the novel is where Johnson breaks a little new ground (for this reader at least). To escape her childhood, which culminates by her committing patricide, Margot sheds her given identity (in itself given by foster parents) and assumes the emancipating role of Marcus. It’s hard not to read into this the suggestion that this ‘necessary’ transformation is that of being freed of the ‘wrong’ gender. The murder, in this take, becomes much more about killing off an unwanted self, and finding your way to a happier fit. And the question arises, and I’m not the one to answer it, “What is the ultimate end of gender as a perceived state, other than as a means of limitation?”
By this point, Marcus/Margot’s bond with her real mother, Sarah, is ruinous and warped, and the return to the “places we are born” is doomed to disaster. The connect is misread; both early versions of the returning child have already been destroyed. All that remains is the lingering anomalous biological and chemical link. This aspect of the novel offers a wonderfully oblique examination of how parents and children come apart, and how painful, and useless, residual bonds can be. Through language alone, Johnson suggests, can we retain our mutual identities.
Everything Under is rightly on the Booker longlist, and deserves a place on the shortlist. It’s interesting and well done. The shuffled strands occasionally forced a little bit of necessary reorientation, but this is generally an accomplished novel, executed with measured, elegant concision. The bottom line, though, is still surely always this: is the text interesting enough/do I care about the characters? And the answer in both cases is yes, for the most part. It’s a pleasurable reading experience, a nice book, but perhaps often too nice, too innocuous, and perhaps unnecessarily drawn out.
The myth-synonym aspect — which might lend a stronger sense of pervasive impactfulness to a stronger book — feels borrowed rather than seamlessly apposite, used as a means of extending the text, the construction designed to suggest a gravitas that Everything Under often lacks, and finally I was left with the feeling that a very good debut novel had assumed a sense of timelessness and universality it hadn’t quite earned. That’s not to say the Oedipal themes aren’t well explored, but you do wonder if Johnson might have tested herself still further outside the cinctures of such a trammeling guide, which here acts as a receptacle into which some lovely sentences have been poured.
Still, these are themes writers should be taking on; perhaps Johnson will next time look squarely at a pressing 21st-century matter without the need for dignifying, epoch-exempt road maps. (My guess is a historical novel.) Everything Under always works best outside the mold.