Daisy Johnson – Everything Under (Jonathan Cape, 2018)
There’s an academic term; “the new depthiness”. I have no idea what it means, nor do I have any interest in finding out. I mention it only because I found Daisy Johnson’s novel, Everything Under, to explore surfaces and depths in ways that are new and exciting. Any similarities between my excitement and nonsensical jargon are, I assure you, entirely coincidental.
The novel bears a strong relation to British experimental writing of the 1960s (my own personal academic hobbyhorse) and post-nouveau roman literature more generally. It avoids signposting either narrative or character, instead preferring to develop its story through an ever shifting landscape of symbol-ridden scenery, transformative characters and speech-mark-free dialogue. It can be disorienting at times, but the overall effect is magical.
The novel follows an abandoned daughter’s relationship with her run-away mother, her adoptive families and the aquatic folk monster, “canal thief” or “Bonak”, that follows her everywhere. There is a murder in here too, although its reality is often in doubt.
The story itself is patchy, and moves in fits and starts. If it wasn’t for the pure readability of the book I’m not sure it would work. The amazing variety of sentence constructions, however, and the play of language between literary dark and conversational light, makes the prose a joy to read.
All of this would be enough to recommend the book, but what elevates it above a readable and thoughtful tale into something of importance is its complex articulation of notions of depth and surface.
For a start, it is largely set near water; particularly the boatways and canals of the South East. This is the same geographical terrain mined for its symbolic potential so effectively in Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983). Yet, where Swift uses the waterways as a symbol of deep England – of a history and tradition only kept alive by our constant efforts in the present – Johnson’s waterways are more ambiguous, less sure in their designations of depth and surface.
The barriers between what’s on top and what’s under are forever being broken. The Bonak lives in the water, but terrorises those on land. Those on land must venture into the water to hunt for it but, once under, risk losing themselves completely. Our protagonist, Margot/Marcus, is obsessed with fate, her adoptive parents with genes – two depthy determinants – while on the surface (s)he moves between gender performances with little regard for a “true” gender, in the solid sense of identity.
A key scene shows Fiona, “a woman trapped in a man’s body like a fish in the belly of a heron”, shaving away her facial stubble using an old razor. It is the same razor that Margot uses to cut her hair, becoming Marcus. Both use the water as a mirror. The razor on the surface of the skin is reflected on the surface of the water, but what is really at stake lies in the depths below.
Language too, moves for Margot like the surface of a river. Her mother, drunk and antisocial, raises her to speak made-up words and, faced with the definitions Margot later works with as a dictionary compiler, prefers to chew up the paper and swallow it than read. Eating recurs in the novel, as do definitions. There is something voracious in both.
I worry that my points here aren’t clear. Perhaps my own prose has adapted to the novel, being allusive? Despite their binary relation; surface and depth are often too subjective in their determinants to truly signify. Their dialectical relation is itself always in flux, like the waters from which the metaphor draws its ground. Surfaces show depths, depths carry surfaces, and the two mix like mud and silt in the linguistic flow.
Johnson’s use of the river gives new life to our most ancient symbol. She shows us that depth can sometimes be banal, while surfaces can be complex and fascinating. We can seek out depth as a solace when the surfaces scare us or leave us detached.
Heraclitus taught us that life is always moving, like the waters, while the river as such is a trick of the eye. There is permanence in a river and transience in water. The search for meaning, identity, our place in life, our family, are an attempt to see permanence in transience; a desire to see our reflection staring back not only from the surface, but from the depths as well.
Johnson’s prose is enough to assure this book’s power and appeal. It is its complex use of symbolism that renders it important and meaningful. I am glad to see that it received the attention of the Booker Prize judges, although I fear that it’s legacy may depend upon the nature of the academic attention it receives within the next few years.
A true engagement with this text, on its own terms, will produce valuable lessons, I am certain. What it doesn’t need, is the sorts of cursory attention that contemporary lit crit usually specialises in. To reduce it to queer theory, for example, would be an injustice to its lack of certitude, its challenge, its indeterminacy. To measure its “new depthiness”, well… you’d do better to jump in the river.
– Joe Darlington