The Myth of the Troubled Female in Sorry to Disrupt the Peace

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In a delightful, half-page chapter of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, narrator Helen Moran describes a time when her childhood home was infested with silverfish. For weeks, she and her adoptive brother—both Korean, unrelated to one another by blood—were forced to inhale the chemical residue left by pesticides, because their adoptive parents wouldn’t pay to stay elsewhere. “Sometimes I thought we might have become brain-damaged from the fumes,” Helen offers, “each of us sustaining catastrophic brain injuries, it would have explained so much.”

The novel occurs over the course of the four days in which Helen returns to her adoptive parents’ home in Milwaukee to investigate the suicide of her adoptive brother. (In the book, there are few, if any, mentions of family members not preceded by the word “adoptive.”) Helen harbors hero fantasies, imagines she alone can quell the grief of her estranged family. And everything, of course, goes wrong. But even as Helen works to uncover a narrative, any narrative, to explain her brother’s suicide, the novel refuses simple explanations. If, as Helen puts it, “Behind every suicide, there’s a door,” this one opens out into a vastness, a positive void.

Reading this marvelously interior novel, I felt an irresistible intimacy with Helen. She says things to no one—and often. She has philosophical moods. She compares her logic with its gaping holes to a piece of Swiss cheese. She eats heels of stale crusty bread meant for ducks and an entire cake meant for mourners. She has “made a lifetime of studying elegant mannerisms.” She speculates that she might speculate herself to death. She finds happiness in free bagels at work meetings: “Would an unhappy and miserable person find perfect peace and contentment in stale bagels with no cream cheese?”

Cottrell’s novel will charm readers of Bernhard or Walser. It will also please those like me who appreciate fiction that comes with a bibliography. (Including works cited or consulted has always struck me as such a generous offering; examples that come to mind include Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life and Sprawl, Amina Cain’s I Go to Some Hollow and Creature, Claire Donato’s Burial, and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler.) Sorry to Disrupt the Peace concludes with a sweet little “Notes” section with references to phrases borrowed from Nietzsche, Lispector, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, George Herbert, Coleridge, Bernhard, Kafka, and Nabokov. While Helen’s own investigations can feel as though they are carried out in a vacuum, Cottrell gives readers linguistic traces to follow on investigations of their own. And Cottrell can get away with this borrowing because the sentences of this book are a true pleasure.

Cottrell’s prose is discursive and associative and gripping all at once. When our 32-year-old narrator attempts to calm down using The Waterfall Coping Strategy, a technique learned from a coworker, her thoughts spin out and run elsewhere:

An image flashed in my own mind of a waterfall, even though I had never seen a waterfall in person. I had seen a watermill, so I switched to that image, to make myself more comfortable: a broken-down watermill surrounded by a forest in autumn. My adoptive mother brought us there when we were young, at a time when her hobby was photography.

Before we know it, we’re among decaying oak leaves reminiscent of pores, overzoomed by her mother’s telephoto lens, hiding with a nearly twelve-year-old, newly menstruating Helen and her nine-year-old brother behind a watermill as they make up a game called Confession. In the game, Helen makes her brother atone for his sins through bodily humiliation. He is covered in dirt and she tells him he’s going to die, they both are, forgiveness doesn’t matter, it’s just a game.

Helen’s brother’s favorite foods were white rice and white chicken. Her childhood home brims with white soap, white foam. From college Helen writes to her adoptive parents, “The two white people raised their Asian children to think Asian art was decorative: Oriental rugs and vases! Jade elephants! Enamel chopsticks!” In her childhood home, new knicknacks replaced old knickknacks, wicker replaced leather, and her adoptive parents are the cheapest people in the neighborhood. As Helen attempts to carry out her investigation, strangers and relatives colonize rooms “like bacterial pathogens.” She sees grief incarnate as a European man, and later dreams she has become a European man named Jacques and murdered someone herself.

Somewhere in the middle of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is a pamphlet written and distributed by Helen, titled “How to Survive in New York City on Little to Nothing.” Back in New York, Helen works with “troubled young people” who have dubbed her Sister Reliability, and this pamphlet contains practical information such as, “An investigative and probing spirit will give you a tour of the boarded-up and condemned house that every rich white person keeps inside herself.” Being of service is a way out of a bind for Helen: “I hadn’t yet come into my Sister Reliability role, I wasn’t of service to anyone, not even myself; I was just another troubled female.”

Helen does in fact seem to be in conversation with the narrators of some of my favorite contemporary novels of the troubled female, where troubled means a combination of independent, grieving, resourceful, probing, and fiercely intelligent—often in a manner that causes (and stems from) friction with the exterior world. As much as Helen longs for someone to genuinely ask her how she’s doing, she doesn’t rely on a partner or friend for comfort. A “spinster from a book” who has been mistaken for a man, for a homeless person, her primary relationship seems to be with reason and logic, however distorted—with attempting to comprehend death amidst the absurdity of being alive. This is a metaphysical tale of ratiocination gone awry. Even as Helen lays claim to rationality, she challenges a certain accepted reasonableness.

Helen says, “I’m sorry to disrupt the peace was my stock apology… because it could mean so many different things to people. It could mean, I’m sorry, I made a mistake. It could mean, I’m sorry, I’ll ruin you, bitch.” But in flashes of insightful communion with the reader—through the entrance of characters who knew Helen way back when, along with a key point of view switch late in the novel, the book itself provides a more complete picture than we’d get from Helen alone. The novel takes a turn I wouldn’t dare give away, less for fear of spoiling the surprise than because Cottrell puts it best. Helen’s four-day investigation comes to a close in a propulsive way—no small feat for a novel that ends with the same suicide with which it began.

In a book in which death itself is the most orderly, least disruptive conduct, the question becomes what we take for peace in the first place—and at what cost we work to preserve it. As Helen writes in her pamphlet, “Ethical positions should never be laid in concrete, sometimes it’s necessary to shift one’s moral compass, and sometimes it’s necessary to destroy it.”

Liza St. James is a writer and translator from San Francisco. She teaches in the Undergraduate Writing Program at Columbia University. More from this author →