As part of my feature on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses I am posting a number of guest reviews written by a couple of my fellow judges. Today I welcome back Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell, which is published by And Other Stories.
“Why wouldn’t anyone admit that a life is not a life but a deathward existence?”
Helen, in Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell.
“Just as Altensam was alien to him, so he must have seemed a foreign element to his family, they had in the end worn each other up on chronic mutual recriminations, primordial recriminations, Roithamer wrote, that is, he, Roithamer , on the one side and Roithamer’s family on the other, were wearing each other out in the most inhuman way, a way least worthy of human beings, in this process of sheer mutual exhaustion. His natural bent for studying ie for studying everything, however, had enabled him quite early in life, by studying Altensam, to see through Altensam and thereby to see through himself and to achieve insight and to take action and thanks to these constant ongoing lifelong studies he’d always had to do as he ended up doing, all his life, though he’d rather call it his existence, or better still, his deathwards existence, everything he’d ever done had been based on nothing but this habit of studying which he’d never been able to shake off, where other people get ahead easily and often quite rapidly, he’d never gotten ahead easily or rapidly, obsessed as he was with the habit of always studying, all of him, his organism, his mind, and everything he did, determined by his habit of studying.”
Roithamer in Correction, Thomas Bernhard tr. Sophie Wilkins.
And Other Stories is one of the UK’s wonderful small independent publishers: they aim to ‘publish writing that is mind-blowing, often ‘challenging’ (Maureen Freely) and ‘shamelessly literary’ (Stuart Evers) – opening a space for exploration and discovery’.
As a subscriber, this novel is the 5th book from them I have read this year and the description given in apposite. All of the books were ones I am proud to have helped get published but some were a challenge to read (e.g. Black Wave): these aren’t novels that are meant to sit in the reader’s comfort zone.
Sorry to Disrupt The Peace certainly fits the challenging mould but this is one of my favourite books of 2017.
Our first-person narrator Helen was born in Korea but adopted at a young age by a white American couple in Milwaukee, who also adopted another Korean boy.
“I’m sorry to disrupt the peace was my stock apology: I used it all the time at my workplace, it was a good 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.”
The novel opens with the 32 year-old Helen in New York, barely scraping together a living, where she receives the news that her adoptive brother (as she consistently refers to him) has committed suicide.
“At the time of his death I was a thirty-two-year-old woman, single, childless, irregularly menstruating, college-educated, and partially employed. If I looked in the mirror, I saw something upright and plain. Or perhaps hunched over and plain, it depended. Long, long ago I made peace with my plainness. I made peace with piano lessons that went nowhere because I had no natural talent or aptitude for music. I made peace with the coarse black hair that grows out of my head and hangs down stiffly to my shoulders. One day I even made peace with my uterus.”
“Living in New York City for five years, I had discovered the easiest way to distinguish oneself was to have a conscience or a sense of morality, since most people in Manhattan were extraordinary thieves of various standing, some of them multi-billionaires. Over time, I became a genius at being ethical, I discovered that it was my true calling. I made little to no money as a part-time after-school supervisor of troubled young people, with the side work of ordering paper products for the toilets. After my first week, the troubled people gave me a nickname.”
“Hey, Sister Reliability, what’s up? Bum me a cigarette. Suck my dick. They never stopped smoking or saying disgusting things to me, those troubled young people living and dying in Manhattan, sewer of the earth! I was living and dying right next to them all the while attempting to maintain an ethical stance as their supervisor, although some days I will admit it was difficult to tell who was supervising whom.”
Helen is in reality subject to a disciplinary investigations at work – perhaps related to her purloining of the toilet supplies or her sourcing of marijuana as her personal therapeutic device her ‘troubled young people’ (another constant refrain), amongst other failings. An email to her supervisor excusing her absence is entitled “A DEATH IN THE FAMILY (NOT THE BOOK)”, a nicely Knausgaardian nod, and she signs off
(“even though he refused to call me Sister Reliability, the troubled young people certainly did”).
Highly dysfunctional she is nevertheless wonderfully self-obsessed and delusional (“I always related any given situation to myself, another of my great talents”) and decides that she will go home to help her estranged parents:
“I shouted things to the passersby on the crummy sidewalks below. I can be a very helpful person! I screamed. A woman pushing a double-wide stroller looked up at me with concern. At your service, bitches! I shouted. I saluted the pigeons and the rats. I said to no one, What you are doing, Helen, is not only very ethical, it is what is required.
I would envelop them in warmth of my charity and my supportive beam of light. I am a helpfulness virtuoso and it is time to take my talents to my childhood home.”
Her ‘adoptive parents’ (again she always refers to them that way) are none too please to see her – regarding her, realistically, as more likely to be a burden than a help: she puts flowers sent for the funeral into a bucket, which proves to be filled with diluted bleach and eats the cake intended for the reception afterwards. But she nevertheless embarks on her own investigation into the causes of her brother’s death, an investigation which, unsurprisingly given her personality, is as much about discovering the causes of her own unhappiness as her brother’s.
There is a lot of autobiographical overlap with Cottrell’s own life (see The Guardian for the detail) and the novel is clearly grounded in her own experience and emotion, but still fictional.
“The autobiographical details that overlap with the book—they’re very emotional, I was writing from a place of emotion. But I wasn’t hoping to create confusion between me and Helen. If people want to read the details of my life into the events in Helen’s, that choice has nothing to do with me. That’s the reader’s response, which is private and subjective. I’m aware I need to hold space for all different types of responses, and I’m hopeful I can do that.”
Source: Paris Review interview.
Given this invitation to make one’s own subjective response, to me the novel was most resonant as a novel in response to the greatest novelist of the last 50 years, Thomas Bernhard, and in particular his masterful Correction – albeit with a very different if ultimately equally tragic brother-sister relationship. In Cottrell’s own words:
“Interior books are the books I prefer to spend my time with. I would venture that Thomas Bernhard is the master of interior prose. I remember sitting with Jesse Ball, who is a genius, at The School of the Art Institute in 2010 and he had Correction on the table. That moment of reading Correction and then going on to The Loser, Extinction, Concrete, Woodcutters, Frost, Gargoyles, Wittgenstein’s Nephew, all of those books changed things for me. In the opening 20 pages or so in The Loser, the narrator is standing in a doorway or in the process of entering an inn. There’s no description of his physical movement, it’s simply stated, which was exciting to me.
I admire Thomas Bernhard and the writers he has inspired, W. G. Sebald and Javier Marías for example. The rhythm of Bernhard’s sentences is something I want to study for the rest of my life. His narrators are repellent and misogynistic, and yet, there’s very little artifice or decoration, and in that way, they seem really pure. I dislike artificial books, books that have nice manners, books that are designed to show off the writer’s ease with developing characters, settings, et cetera. Those books work well as doorstoppers, I think, or you can use them to press flowers or whatever. I have a list of voice-driven novels that I turn to when I forget how to write. Some of the books on that list: Nobody is Ever Missing, By Night in Chile, Fra Keeler, The Face of Another, The Rings of Saturn. My favorite interior novels are written from a feeling of desperation and urgency.”
Source: LA Review of Books
Helen’s one brief moment of success, as a performance artist, was ended by accusations of plagiarism, but she justifies her approach to herself:
“A side-by-side comparison of my work to the world of Connell and Darger showed certain similar technical flourishes and extensions, and although it was easy to see am unabashed and perhaps uncritical admiration, my found texts and assemblages were not exact copies, my intention had been to participate in the conversation, not to reproduce what had already been produced.”
Her writing in this first-person account has a similar approach, drawing heavily on the patterns of other authors, notably Thomas Bernhard but also Kafka and Lispector, sometimes appropriating their turns-of-phrase directly as in the quote that opens the review (Cottrell provides the references at the back that Helen omits).
And her prose is full of wonderful black comedy:
“I pictured the funeral, that great spectacle of mourning. I saw strangers standing around taking part in a superficial grief performance ostensibly to both celebrate and mourn a dead person they never bothered to know when he was alive.”
Or, as she travels from the airport to her childhood home, in the evening gloom, her fond recall of her childhood home is typically bleak:
“I saw in my head the nunnery where all the nuns died and the priests took over, the pharmacy that houses a child pornography ring, the bird sanctuary where a governmental agency collects the geese to feed to wolves.”
One striking theme is Helen and her brother’s situation. As I write the review today the English newspapers headlines relate in typically scandalised tones the story of a English girl fostered by a devout Muslim family (“Christian girl, 5, is forced into foster care with Burka-wearing Muslim carers who ‘took away her crucifix and stopped her eating bacon”, Daily Mail) – but I suspect the same papers would praise Helen’s adoptive parents for making her integrate:
“When [my adoptive father] played Mozart or Schubert the house filled up with white male European culture. We were expected to worship it, which we did for a while, but once I went to college, I stopped. There is a world and history of non white culture, I wrote to them once in a furious letter. And you kept us in the dark our entire childhood! The two white people raised their Asian children to think Asian art was decorative: Oriental jugs and vases! Jade elephants! Enamel chopsticks!”
The final straw for her is her first communion (“stupid white bitches getting married to God!”) although she has no interest in finding her real mother, unlike her adoptive brother. Indeed when her ‘investigation’ is abruptly resolved by finding a suicide note of sorts left by her brother explaining everything, a note her parents were aware of had she but asked them rather than pursue her own course, his search for his own roots proves to have played a key role.
Ultimately a blackly comic, emotionally moving and highly literary novel – strongly recommended.
You may read my review of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace here.
Tomorrow on my blog, an interview with the author of this book.
Keep up with all the news on The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses by following on Twitter: @PrizeRofc