The protagonist of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s precocious debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, joins Thomas Bernhard’s self-absorbed and self-flagellating artists, Ottessa Moshfegh’s unrepentant and amoral failures, and modern fiction’s other disenchanted, dissociated narrators staring obliquely but soberly at the absurdities of life. Cottrell’s Helen Moran is a Korean adoptee, sister to another Korean adoptee brother of unrelated blood, and the daughter of white midwestern parents. In New York as a self-exile, she survives in squalor by neglecting basic needs, scavenging the streets for articles of clothing, appealing to charitable strangers, and mentoring troubled youth in an after-school program. The start of the novel finds her receiving news of her brother’s suicide and returning to her childhood home unannounced. The novel primarily concerns itself with Helen’s well-intentioned but haphazard metaphysical investigation into the nature of her brother’s death. The work’s form is a loose parody of noir detective fiction, in which an inexplicable death is demystified through aggressive interrogation and the scrutinizing of evidence. The logic of the novel is that Helen cannot fully apprehend her brother until she considers his life through the lens of his suicide.
There is a sort of perverse pleasure in watching Helen hopelessly shamble through life. Her voice varies between wry amusement, deep resignation, and unbridled rage. She is often overly forthright and uncompromising with her views, to a point of callousness and insensitivity. In one scene, Helen recollects a time during her university years, when her mother came to visit and asked her why she hadn’t displayed any photos of the family. The conversation is typical of Helen’s humorous interactions, in which other characters react to her high-mindedness with bewilderment or hostility. The dialogue is marked by an absurdly and comically vast misapprehension on both sides:
Why are there no photos of your family? she asked me. Don’t you miss your family?
I tried to explain my position on photography. It’s just that a second captured on film doesn’t accurately represent the real world, I said to her.
She looked at me as if I were some kind of Native American New Age-y person.
People who call themselves photographers are fake, I went on, the real charlatans of our time. Behind a photo is a perfectly fake person, scrubbed of all flaws, dead inside…
You’re ashamed of your family, she said, you’ve always been ashamed of your family. What did we do to you, Helen? Why are you so angry with us?
There is clearly something pathological and almost sociopathic with Helen’s unconcern for other’s emotions. Ironically, she accuses her parents of misunderstanding her and her brother while she seems unaware of her own inability to empathize and read social cues. She desires to remain a detached and impassive observer even in social interactions that demand engagement and role-playing. As a result, she often appears cold, standoffish, and unsympathetic. With her adoptive parents, her cynicism has become a protective mechanism, a convenient attitude so that she can remain basically noncommunicative.
The focus of the novel is the strange kinship between brother and sister. Throughout much of their lives, they have both been marginalized figures groping for purpose. Like her brother, she has entertained thoughts of suicide. She recognizes life as a “deathward existence.” She confesses a personal understanding of his suffering: “It’s possible I was as miserable as my adoptive brother, and I understood how this misery and depression would lead to suicide.” She introduces him to Miles Davis, whose music he finds “life-changing” and whose record he leaves her as his parting gift. Her brother is the only character to whom Helen can profess any sort of spiritual or emotional connection.
This intimacy makes it all the more tragic when in the wake of her brother’s suicide, Helen realizes that their relationship was actually quite shallow, that she never registered the full extent of her brother’s deep psychic pain. In one of the most tender moments of the novel, she faults herself for her lack of involvement in her brother’s life:
It was easier for me to turn the other way when it came to his lies, and at the time it was much more comfortable for me. I exploited people and situations for my own comfort…Perhaps if I had taken him to Central Park instead of Prospect Park we would have had an in-depth conversation about what was going on in his life, his struggles and worries, his hopes and dreams, but because I took him to Prospect Park, we sat in silence most of the afternoon at the zoo until the sky darkened and it was time to leave.
She is really faulting herself for her self-absorption and her disinterest in other people’s lives. Helen reflexively chooses the ease of self-involvement as opposed to the difficulty of empathy. This choice is Cottrell’s theme. The “peace” to which Helen constantly refers is a condition of isolation, complacency, and self-satisfaction. And it takes the violent “disruption” of her brother’s suicide for her to recognize her own solipsism.
Helen’s investigation is actually a departure from habitual inwardness. Though slightly self-serving, she is after an empathetic understanding of her brother. One of the most poignant moments of this unexpectedly affecting novel is when Helen reads her brother’s acknowledgement of her existence in his letters: “I kept searching for the parts where he wrote my name, Helen. I touched my name and made it shimmer. It was so reassuring to read Helen this or Helen that. I exist. In someone else’s world, I exist.” Strangely, it is as if she were the dead ransacking the lives of the living for traces of her own existence. The confirmation that she exists moves her so much because Helen is so often condemning herself to fading from other people’s lives—especially those of her family. Paradoxically, her dead brother reinvigorates her life by confirming that she is indeed alive. This darkly humorous but compassionate novel is a meditation on the ways the living are transformed when they approach the torturous and enigmatic histories of their dead.
About the Reviewer
Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review and Pleiades.