Meet Sonny Anderson, burgeoning author, failed LA Galaxy hopeful, neurotic, ex-meth-head and Shaun of the Dead obsessive. Sonny doesn’t remember his mother’s face; he was kidnapped at age five by his father, Guru Bim, and taken to live in a commune in Brazil. Since the age of ten, Sonny has lived in Redondo Beach, California, with his guardian Thomas Hardiker. Brits think he’s an American, Americans think he’s a Brit.
When he turns 21, Sonny musters the courage to travel alone to the UK. Ostensibly his mission is to visit the locations of Shaun of the Dead, but inwardly Sonny is optimistic his trip will lead to a reunion with his mother. And Thomas has an ulterior motive too: to reveal the truth about Sonny’s childhood. To this end, he has compiled a list of people for Sonny to visit who knew his parents and has packed into his rucksack five letters in numbered envelopes.
Things We Can't Undo is a novel for anyone who loved Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. (Or just loves Shaun of the Dead.) This is an ambitious and compelling coming-of-age novel written in a unique, confident voice.
‘Martine McDonagh writes simply, sparingly, intelligently and unsentimentally about both big and small things.’ Stephen May, Costa Prize shortlisted author
Martine was James’s manager from 1985, overseeing all tours and releases up to and including the album Laid, in 1994. In addition, she drew the famous James daisy logo, designed numerous T-shirts, and set up the company Billy’s Shirts to handle merch for James, Teenage Fanclub, the Las, Warp Records and many others. She sang backing vocals on Sit Down and several other tracks and is the mother referred to in the Gold Mother album.
On the park behind me, a couple kids aged eleven or twelve or so are playing soccer, sorry football. A regular pair of homies, wearing their pants low to show the top of their chonies. As I walk towards them their ball swerves my way so I chip it back and drop a gnarly pass onto the right foot of the other little guy, the one who didn’t kick it to me. Just flexin’ bro. Actually I am not a bad player as it goes. Me and the other kids in Brazil played hours of barefoot every day, and when I was twelve and we’d moved to RB, I was picked for the Galaxy youth to play midfield. I killed it for a while, but I guess I’m not really a team player. And I think it’s safe to say that twelve going into thirteen was kind of a difficult phase for me. And that’s the definition of understatement, right there.
I feel like goofing around for a while with these guys to get some blood into my muscles, so I say Hey and stop to take off my backpack. My shoulders need a break from the weight and it feels good to get some air under my shirt. They’re cool. I show them a few tricks, a couple touzanis, which they can already do well enough so I show them how to do the Rivelino elastic and tell them about the Galaxy and how I could’ve trained with Beckham if I hadn’t baled a couple years before he got there. They’re super impressed by that even though it’s something I didn’t do, and if I’m entirely honest the Galaxy are crap, which reminds me of Thomas, ranting on about how the Brits worship mediocrity. Also on my unwritten list of things to do here, go to a real game, with real pre-match crowd noise instead of a recording. Maybe it’s because Mrs C was so underwhelmed to see me, maybe I’m knocked out of whack by the jetlag, but for some reason I need to come on to these guys like I’m The Dude. I hear myself and it’s pathetic. I try to cool it a little, make it more about them.
I ask them how many balls get booted over the cliff in an average year, and they say thousands, so I tell them they are probably the sole (get it?) reason all the fish in the ocean are dying from plastic poisoning, which makes them laugh. Their names are Josh and David and they are both twelve and have been best buddies their whole lives. Their accent is like the villagers in Hot Fuzz (second movie in the Cornetto trilogy); the female villagers that is, their voices didn’t break properly yet. They tell me that once a boy was chasing a ball so hard he ran right off the edge of the cliff. His body was smashed to a pulpy mess on the rocks below. The council put up a fence to stop it happening again and people tied plastic bouquets to it, but then the wind blew it all down in a storm. Somehow I twist the conversation round to SOTD and I’m stoked when they say it’s their favourite movie so I pull the list of movie locations out of my bag and tell them about my plan to visit them all, which gets them real excited. We take turns to count keepie-uppies. I haven’t yacked off like this in years, like I never fell into the meth-hole. It’s the soccer, it bypasses all that shit and takes me back to being a kid.
When it’s time for them to go home for dinner (they call it tea), they tell me I can get to my hotel quicker by walking along the cliff path and show me how to get on it. We walk over there together, kicking the ball in tight triangles, discussing the merits of certain pizza toppings and Lionel Messi, all the way to the other side of the park. We stop at a section of low wooden fence, which they call a stile, with two steps on each side to help the less limber climb over. We high five each other and they pick up the ball and run back towards the cottages. I’m kind of sorry to see them go. It’s like watching my old self running away from me all over again. Only my old self didn’t run so much as strap himself to a rocket.
I send Thomas a panorama shot of the view so he knows I’ve touched down in Torquay. Thomas is partial to views. He texts back: Nice.
RUTH OF THE LIVING #1
Ruth Williams still lives in the same house she lived in when she met you, back in the early nineteen-eighties, way before you had me. I check out the satellite view of her address and locate the roof of her house at the top of Parliament Hill, next to Hampstead Heath, one point four miles and twenty-seven minutes by the most direct walking route from my hotel. She functions better in the morning so we arranged for me to be at her house by nine. I walk over there real slow, enjoying that everyone else is either dragging kids to school or rushing to get to their job, all fresh out of the shower, stinking of perfume and after-shave and all the other chemical crap people wash down the pipes to pollute the water supply. I know it’s wrong but I can’t help thinking that now I’m a multi-millionaire I could live my whole life without ever having to do any of that shit. The streets are still wet from overnight rain and the air is damp and chill and grey clouds block the sunshine every few minutes. I picture you, the young woman who became my mother but never my mom, making the same journey thirty-some years before, your long hippy dress trailing in the dirt, beads jangling on your wrist. You stop to hug one of the big old trees that are evenly spaced along both sides of Ruth’s street. But that turns out to be a false imagining. You only started to dress like a hippy after you moved to Scotland, as a kind of disguise. In my experience disguises only make people stand out more, you only have to watch the Z-list TV stars shuffling self-consciously along Hermosa boardwalk in their big hat and shades disguises while every normal person is hatless and relaxed to know what I mean. I guess they want people to look at them really or else they wouldn’t be on TV in the first place. Dressing like a Deadhead was never going to stop my dad finding you.
If I was nervous to meet Mrs C, then the words don’t exist that describe how I feel on my way to Ruth Williams’ house, and that’s because Ruth is the first person I ever met, not counting my dad, who knew you really well. Ruth doesn’t shout at me through the door like Mrs C did. In fairness to Mrs C, she didn’t know I was coming and Ruth does. She opens her door with a great big smile and holds a hand out for me to shake. When our hands connect, one of us is trembling and I can’t be sure it isn’t me. I’m grateful she doesn’t attempt any awkward observations about which parent I resemble most, just lets me be myself and only compares me to the version of me she met when I was very small. My anxiety eases off a little. Her living room has a huge fireplace and the furnishings are minimal compared to Mrs C’s clutter. I wonder if it’s a gas fire that can be lit easily like the one we have in RB. It’s supposed to be summer, but I am really feeling the cold, but I guess I can’t just walk into a stranger’s home and insist they light the fire. All I can do is stare at it hopefully.
‘It’s Edwardian’, says Ruth, misreading my thoughts. ‘This style of house was built during the reign of Edward 7th. Make yourself comfortable. Would you prefer tea or coffee?’
‘I’m a tea man, thank you’, I say. ‘My parents were both Brits remember?’
I have no idea why I say that, nerves I guess. My tea habit comes from Thomas, not from you or my dad, who only drank herbals, and I feel bad for Ruth when slaps her hands onto her skirt as if to say she should have known that. She’s gone again before I get the chance to apologize. The room is in back of the house and has a clear view over the red and brown rooftops of the houses on the next street. Beyond is a large grey pond and beyond that an area of green, which I guess is the Heath. We don’t have large parks in RB, and if we did Donald Trump would probably have bought them and remodelled them into golf courses for rich old men to drive around in on their buggies. The thin layer of dust on the window frames and furniture in Ruth Williams’s house is the same dust that settles on everything in the rooms of the old people at Sunrise; dust made up of particles of dead skin, shed by the old and dying, whose eyesight is too weak to see it and even if their vision is okay their muscles and bones are too tired to care about sweeping it away. Sometimes their brain has forgotten what dust is and what you’re supposed to do about it. But don’t get me wrong; there is nothing weak or forgetful about Ruth Williams. Two chairs are arranged at an angle to the window to look out over the view. It’s obvious which chair is her favourite, the one with the reading lamp set right behind it and the slanting seat cushion with the ends of a newspaper poking out from under it. I guess this is where Ruth likes to sit and talk, and when there’s nobody to talk to it’s where she likes to sit and read, or sit and watch the seasons change. A low, round wooden table is set between the two chairs and I knock my knees against it as I sit down. I mess with my cell while I wait, send myself the recording of Mrs C because I forgot to back it up, check the weather in RB, seventy-two and grey, and write a message to Thomas so he knows I found his letters: One thing. Those challenges I faced head on were of my own making, not anybody else’s. Shaun has to stop defending Ed’s behaviour before he can grow some, I had to stop defending meth-head Sonny’s behaviour. Right?Ruth has arranged cookies in the shape of a flower. A low tower of round, pale wheat cookies in center form the flower’s eye, and six or seven chocolate oblongs with BOURBON etched into their tops are the petals. Later, before I kill the last petal, I take a photo to remind me to buy a pack on the way back to my hotel. This is one kind of Bourbon I’m allowed.
More brilliant news - Harper Collins Germany have bought the rights to publish NfB there under the title Familie und andere Trostpreise (Family and other Consolation Prizes), which I think is a great title. Not sure when publication will be, can't imagine the translation process is a quick one, but thinking Spring / Summer 2018. I've had a sneak preview of the cover, which looks fab too…
Hopefully by now you will have received your copy of Narcissism for Beginners, but if you haven't please let me know or contact Unbound directly because you should definitely have had it by now. Check your inbox first though in case you've overlooked the email asking for verification of your address.
And if you've already read and enjoyed the book (or even if you haven't) and are a member of Goodreads…
Dear lovely supporters,
I am really excited (if not slightly terrified at the thought of NfB being read) to let you know that your special edition copies are in the process of being packed up and will be with you very soon... and what beautiful things they are. Unbound have done an incredible job on the production side to produce a really high-quality book with lots of extras that the trade edition…
before the opportunity to upgrade your pledge from eBook to hardback (just email email@example.com) or to make a new pledge for a friend and have their name printed in NfB expires...pledging closes at midnight next Monday 15th August.
Meanwhile, over at Unbound Towers, the first cover art ideas are in and they're all fabulous, so it's going to be a tough choice. That first glimpse of the cover…
I have news! Quite a lot of it. And none of it involves politicians, slimy or otherwise. We've been through the copy editing process, a relatively painless procedure thanks to the sharp eyes of Linda McQueen, and first proofs are being read by me and Unbound's proofreader as I write. The cover design process begins this month too.
And we have a new title. I've struggled to find the right title…
Every day* since 19th October 2015, I have found myself occupied with the following minute calculations:
Yes, Christmas is coming and the world and its bank account is already under enough pressure / broke / drunk (can a bank account be drunk?), so I won't keep you long...but I did just want to let you know that I've added a few rare James-related items to my pledge options (for those under 35, James is a band who had a huge hit called Hose It Down, or something like that, and I used to be their manager…
The first draft of this story, written about 4 years ago, went by the title, The Grace of Guru Bim, and was very different in every way, but particularly in terms of structure and narrative voice, to the novel as it stands now, one full rewrite and two and a half complete redrafts later.
My first draft focused on Guru Bim, a character who has since evolved into Sonny's father in Things We Can't…
...and chug towards the halfway mark, it strikes me that if each of you 106 lovely supporters were able to persuade just one other person to pledge - well, we'd be almost there in no time! No pressure obviously, just a thought...the llamas thank you.
These people are helping to fund Narcissism For Beginners.