In his essay on “Oedipal Knowledge,” Michel Foucault argued that Sophocles’s Oedipus, whose namesake is a man seemingly out of options, could be read as a meditation on being too much. “Everything concerning and around Oedipus is too much,” Foucault writes, “too many parents, too many marriages, fathers who are also brothers, daughters who are also sisters, and this man, so excessively given to misfortune and who ought to be tossed into the sea.” Foucault observes how each character is split multiple times, containing within them pieces of one man’s over-determined story; a man whose only wish is to have everything—wit, wisdom, the love of the gods, kingdom, marriage—cannot experience all he is and hold on to his life. “You poor child,” cautions Jokasta, Oedipus’s mother/wife, “never find out who you are.”
Toward the beginning of Daisy Johnson’s sly, elliptical repurposing of the Oedipus myth, Everything Under, the primary narrator, Gretel, ruminates upon the search for her long-lost mother, Sarah, that takes up much of the novel’s psychic space: “There are more beginnings than there are ends to contain them.” In Johnson’s book, the horrifying bounty of individuation is captured in wispy storytelling that alludes to a sickening depth below, a carpet overlaying a cavern. Later, Gretel briefly describes a dream of a room “in which I knew where all the exits were and had nailed the curtains to the wall.” Does the dream reflect the character’s longing for psychic escape? Or is it the possibility of multiple passageways never explored that makes the room lovely?
The understated, seclusionary novel opens with Gretel, now a lexicographer who works in a “dictionary office” updating entries, receiving a tip about her mother whom she hasn’t seen since Sarah abandoned her 16 years prior. She decides to renew her search. The story is told from multiple vantage points, meandering back and forth through time in cross-hatched sections. “The Cottage” is our present, in which Gretel cares for Sarah, who is suffering from bouts of confusion, loss of language, and memory; “The Hunt” recounts Gretel’s investigation into Sarah’s whereabouts. A few “Sarah” sections capture her life before children. “The River” tells the story of Marcus, a trans boy who leaves his adoptive home after receiving a troubling prophecy. He comes to live briefly with Sarah and Gretel.
These are the central cast of characters to which I’d add one more, The Bonak, a water monster only Sarah and Gretel believe in, identified with the ambient fears that stalk their lives. It is just one of many terms—offing along, sheesh time, harpiedoodle—the two conjure out of their lonely intimacy. These memories of language and relationships travel with Gretel to the present day, like an “anchor,” she says. Finally in the “Cottage” scenes, what once seemed too solid and implacable bubbles up as Sarah fades in and out of her former self. Sarah loses herself on walks around the cottage, scrambles her words into ravings, glossolalia. “You seem to have more words than you know what to do with. Than I know what to do with. They spill out of you,” remarks Gretel.
The temptation with retellings, especially with political dramas as widely known as Oedipus, is to place them in a new political context. (Like Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), or every movie and TV show from the ’80s whose characters have been given smartphones and tasked with representing the various polarities of wokeness.) Johnson’s decision to moor the story far from the palaces of power gives her room to play with Oedipus’s narratives of outcasts and identity. It is surprising to read a novel published in 2018, more-or-less situated in the present, that features no technology, nationalism, or future. Gretel’s co-worker appears genuinely unbothered by Gretel’s long absence from work and just wants to let her know, when Gretel calls to check in, that someone left a message for her, and would she like to listen to it. All conflict and relationships—romantic or otherwise—reside solely within the family.
The book’s abdication of the wider world doesn’t necessarily limit it. The story is also told out of repression, eerily quiet, like a pool of drowned bees. Each sentence lands with contemplative delicacy—the sensation while reading is of being pushed down into the muddled sequence of foregone conclusions. Here is Gretel again contemplating her relationship with Sarah:
You’d made me and I wanted nothing more than to cut you out, cut you right out of my insides…. You populated me; you ran the spirals of my thinking. I went to work, at at the same desk every day, dreamed of something swimming in the River Isis, dreamed of your mouth moving around words I could no longer hear.
Johnson wields the soothing, transfixing rhythm of myth with patience and slippery half-glance words like “seemingly,” “silence,” “something,” and “a sense of.” What the book shares most starkly with Oedipus is the narrative seriousness of a fatalistic sort—the inability to let any image, piece of evidence, or person off the hook. If a lure appears, it’s a metaphor; if a mother fucks, she will be undone.
Then there’s the riverine heart of the tale from which all its progeny flee. In Everything Under, as the prophetic title warns, the waters are blind and their full embrace is fatal. Above it, a family of associations, games, and dictionary definitions fashions itself from the pressures of worldly abandon. They are a kind of running commentary, or chorus, that merely suggests, forebodes.
Twelve-year-old Gretel discovers Marcus lost in the woods and introduces him to a favorite sport of hers and Sarah’s called Knock Knock Wolf. One player turns around to face a tree and counts down, while the other approaches nimbly and is not to be caught moving when the counter turns around. The goal for the stalker is to reach the tree, and Gretel is an unbeatable Daphne, ravishing daughter of the river, rooted in mid-step at every point he lays eyes on her. Soon she will introduce him to her mother. In anticipation, Gretel explains to her new friend March that Sarah “can breathe underwater; she knows every single word in the world, she’s an archeologist and a surgeon and very famous to everyone.” This is how Gretel sees her mother before she sees too much.