Breaking the Rules – Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under
According to the ‘i’ newspaper (‘Opinion Matrix’, 22 October 2018) the Man Booker prize has lost its way. This year’s longlist is apparently selling better than the short list. This is supposed to be a Bad Sign. The judges got it wrong in not choosing the most accessible books, the easiest reads. In the shortlisted books there is challenge, newness, a pushing out of boundaries, perhaps. And this, surely, the implicit idea seems to be, cannot be good for readers, the publishing industry, or literature itself.
The chair of the judges for this year’s Man Booker, Kwame Anthony Appiah, when asked whether the winner of the prize, Anna Burns’ Milkman, was a difficult book, said: ‘It’s challenging in the way a walk up Snowdon is challenging – it’s definitely worth it because the view is terrific when you get to the top.’ In other words, Appiah is saying: Reader, stop being complacent, stop wanting all the work to be done for you. Re-access your curiosity, your verve, your application in reading. Stop cruising. Roll your sleeves up. Get down to the nitty gritty of true involvement with the words on the page. Forget the easy pay-off of immediate ‘story’. And reap the truly amazing rewards – excitement, enlightenment, frustration, disbelief, joy. Access the dizzying heights of something you can’t get an easy grip on. Wasn’t it T S Eliot who said (I paraphrase wildly) ‘it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand ‘The Waste Land’ – just experience it’?
Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under asks of its readers something like this. I admit a bias in favour of Johnson – she was my student just a short time ago on Oxford University’s creative writing Master’s programme. I vividly remember interviewing her, and knowing immediately she was just what we wanted. And she didn’t disappoint us. Eager, curious, dedicated and completely passionate about exploring her writing (and the writing of others) to its fullest degree. We weren’t surprised when an agent snapped her up at the first opportunity. And now, here we are, in the blink of an eyelid – 28 year old Daisy achieving every writer’s dream – shortlisted for one of the most coveted literary prizes in the world, the Man Booker. How has Daisy done it? An easy read? An accessible story? A comforting tisane for her reader? More of the same? Everything Under is, I can assure you, not an easy read. While nothing overtly experimental leaps out at you, the opening ‘explanation’ of just under a page (‘About the Book’) acts as a warning. Is it part of the book? Did Daisy’s editor at Jonathan Cape insist on it, in case readers needed a bit of help at the outset? ‘To Gretel’, the explanation says, ‘words are important … ’. Her story will ‘leave you unsettled and unstrung’, Well, that’s our tip-off. Readers, hold onto your hats.
The challenge in Everything Under is not in fact wordiness. The challenge lies, initially anyway, in its being very ‘interior’. We’re in the head of the narrator Gretel and we can’t see very far beyond that. We experience only snippets of what is happening outside her mind-process. We don’t know her age, shape, disposition. We know she’s dealing with someone who has a condition – dementia, perhaps? We guess it’s her mother, and soon find out that is so. We have the sketch of a situation – rural, mysterious. But the traditional props of an ‘accessible’ novel opening – character, situation, place, time – are notably absent. Neither do we get the comfort of scene-by-scene progression, for the narrative cuts backwards and forwards, up, down, sideways through time and space. We get glimpses, impressions, reactions, emotions. And that’s what holds the novel together in these early stages – the emotional charge of the narrator’s (undefined) situation. ‘It’s as if nothing has ever changed, as if time didn’t mean a jot’. That there’s been some loss or disconnection is clearly evident. Is the narrator to blame? Consumed by guilt? Trying to make sense of? Responsibility is in the mix somewhere, though the reader doesn’t yet know where or how. ‘If I really cared about you I’d put you in a home for your own good’. The tone is touched by a curiously cool desperation. There are no histrionics, quite a few metaphors – ‘the memories flash like broken wine glasses in the dark’ and the whole is driven by a kind of unwavering honesty or truth-to-emotion: ‘There are small moments of peace, almost unbearable’.
And so, in the first twenty or so pages of Everything Under, not a lot happens in terms of ‘story’. A mother has been lost years ago, a mother has been found again, to no very uplifting effect. All the rules of ‘hooking’ your reader have been abandoned. Without the opening explanation, we wouldn’t know who we were dealing with or have a clue about ‘where’. All those creative writing classes that tell you to ‘draw’ your character – it’s not happening here. All those rules about clarity, about making a world that your reader can ‘see’ – forget that too. Be sure to establish ‘place’ early, your creative writing teacher says? It certainly isn’t happening here. ‘Show don’t tell’? – this book is choc-full of telling.
Why, then, read on? Because Daisy Johnson has found in this book an authentic voice that, if you listen to it closely enough, is truly compelling. It’s truthful, questing, analytical, and not afraid of being intelligent – and at times (that dread word) ‘even ‘abstract’ in its intent. The agents and editors I speak to are frequently saying they are desperate to discover a new ‘voice’, something unique, something different. Something doing its own thing. And that’s what the reader has in this work. What those of us in the trade refer to as ‘the real thing’.
The time Daisy spent on my programme in Oxford will have helped her set off on that difficult journey of authenticity. You have to dig deep to find what it is that really drives you As a writer – of literary fiction anyway, you need to be writing not what people want or expect, but what in your deepest self you must write. That’s a hard task, strenuous, unrelenting. To write as honestly as you can. To touch the well spring.
While I don’t claim that Daisy’s time as one of my Oxford students has made her what she is, I do believe the advice she received, the mentoring, coaching, critiquing – the encouragement to break the rules in order to develop her own voice as truly as possible – all this will have facilitated the uncertain journey from aspiring writer to Booker prize shortlist. It’s been a huge pleasure for me to have helped her on her way.