False Starts: On Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
By M.K. Rainey.
Patty Yumi Cottrell, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s, 2017)
Helen Moran is a woman so comically entrenched in her own agenda, she has no time left to live up to old-hat rules of plot and character. Instead, what we get from her creator, Patty Yumi Cottrell, are enticing crumbs of drama sprinkled freely at the feet of this thirty-two year-old ex-artist living in New York. In fact, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is carried forth almost entirely by our suspicion—perhaps “hope” is a better word—that something more might finally happen.
The book begins with Helen learning that her adoptive brother has killed himself; yet she is only told this by a distant relative, not her adoptive parents. Her reaction is errant and wild, but not necessarily off-key for a grieving sister. Helen, though, is no ordinary grieving sister. There is something a little bit off about her.
Vowing to uncover the truth behind her brother’s death, she flies from New York to Milwaukee, where her adoptive parents continue to live in her childhood home. They do not immediately welcome her inside; instead, Helen has to push her way through and invite herself to stay. This might have marked the true start of the story, the initial conflict to be explored. Yet the apparent conflict is simply passed over as the crumbs continue to fall.
Helen, it turns out, is under an internal investigation at her job (she works with troubled youth at an unnamed nonprofit), for what exactly we never find out. Helen herself even seems puzzled, asking “And what would the investigators uncover about me?” At conclusion of the investigation, nothing about Helen is uncovered.
In the same way, we are never privy to what she uncovers about the suicide. Apparently trivial moments—hour-long masturbation sessions—are given the focus instead. Helen doesn’t even enter her brother’s room, let alone look at his computer, the only item on his desk, until the very end of the novel, at which point it feels like merely a dramatic convenience. Over and over, small threads of plot like this are picked up, only to be dropped moments after they appear.
New characters too show up once or twice and vanish from the scene: Chad Lambo (a former schoolmate of Helen’s who now acts as a grief counselor for her parents), Thomas (her adoptive brother’s best friend), Elena (a woman from Helen’s art days who knows about her downfall in the Milwaukee art scene), and Pam (who brings a cake for the funeral that Helen eats in its entirety before anyone else can have any). Opportunities for generating tension—Helen and her brother’s being Koreans adopted by white Americans, for instance—are never developed. This book overflows with so many unconsummated conflicts, one feels almost if that must be the comedy to this novel.
The most captivating thing Cottrell offer us here is Helen’s bizarre mannerisms: her instinct to laugh unapologetically during the novel’s more somber moments, her ability to say the exact wrong thing in every situation, or the imaginary “European Man” she sees floating in the ambience of her most emotional moments. Just what exactly is up with her? Yet we are buried so deep inside her consciousness that we move, unhappily, from being accomplices to vaguely comedic, cringe-worthy behavior to witnesses of an inevitable but unsurprising mental breakdown. Helen foreshadows this brazenly: “I liked stories about people changing their minds and undoing themselves, although in the case of de-transitioning, it’s most likely a rare occurrence, and I had to question the writer’s motives in portraying it.” We can’t help but notice Cottrell’s wink-wink, nudge-nudge, this-is-what-I’m-doing-with-the-novel gesture here, but it feels more like the restatement of a criticism that could just as easily be applied to her own experience.
Helen often makes sweeping judgments of others, like this indictment of her mother: “She lied to us and she rarely said anything that turned out to be true.” These statements do manage to yield some small insights into Helen herself. Cut to the facing page, when we’re given her diagnosis of her adoptive father’s family:
Almost everyone on my adoptive father’s side of the family, except my adoptive father, was burdened with some variation of a mental illness, usually a complicated one like schizophrenia, although the truth was I had endless patience for those with this particular mental situation, mostly because the majority of the troubled youth under my care and protection exhibited early signs of this terrifying and debilitating disease, I saw it in their eyes, I saw the schizophrenia in their pupils.
As a rebuttal to these projections, which counterintuitively reveal what eventually emerges about Helen, she offers this lovely lump that lodges brooding in the reader’s gut: “All of this speculation will lead you to nothing, I thought. You might speculate yourself to death.”
This could have been the real pith of the novel, the place where all those crumbs might have meaningfully led us. But because Helen’s behavior is abnormal at all times, establishing itself as the rule of the book, we wait, to no avail, for the author to bend or break these rules and throw Helen (or anyone else) into relief.
Here lies the problem with this novel—assuming, of course, that you read to step out of your own experience and see how others live or how you might gauge yourself and others from different perspectives. Cottrell never lets Helen see outside herself, which leaves us trapped in her head. This doesn’t have to be a problem. There are very good books with solipsistic designs and narrators that unreliably consume the whole of a text, books that for all that manage to keep readers on edge: Martin Amis’s Money, say, or more recently, Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue. But in those books, things happen to their protagonists as much as their protagonists happen to the rest of the story. In the case of Helen and the revelation of her mental instability, unfortunately, it feels like the real story, the one involving some accountability and choice (without which there can be no dramatic tension) must be happening elsewhere, and Helen herself is free of all responsibility—and interest too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
M.K. Rainey received her MFA in fiction writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches writing to the youth of America through Community-Word Project, Wingspan Arts and The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cider Press Review, Litro Online, Equinox, Teachers & Writers Magazine, The Grief Diaries and more. She co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and lives in Harlem with her dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 17th, 2017.