Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell, published by And Other Stories

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

“Sister Reliability”

(“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.

PF

 

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

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, published by Charco Press

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 Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff), published by Charco Press.

 

“People here prepare for winter like animals. Nothing distinguishes us from them. Take me, an educated woman, a university graduate – I’m more of an animal than those half-dead foxes, their faces stained red, sticks propping their mouths wide open.”

My 2017 reading year has focused on the UK’s small independent press scene, source of the most exciting literary fiction. Many were already familiar to me (Fitzcarraldo, Tramp Press, Peirene, Galley Beggar, And Other Stories) but Charco Press is new, not just to me, but to the publishing scene generally. Their name is taken from the colloquial expression ‘cruzar el charco’ meaning ‘crossing the puddle’, a way of referring to when someone is going overseas, or travelling between continents, and their mission is to bring exciting Latin American literature, via translation, to the UK. Their mission statement is worth quoting in full:

“Charco Press was born from a desire to do something a little out of the ordinary. To bring you, the reader, books from a different part of the world. Outstanding books. Books you want to read. Maybe even books you need to read.

Charco Press is ambitious. We aim to change the current literary scene and make room for a kind of literature that has been overlooked. We want to be that bridge between a world of talented contemporary writers and yourself.

We select authors whose works feed the imagination, challenge perspective and spark debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors whose works have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.”

Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz was one of their two launch books last Summer and tells the story of an unnamed new mother and her – strikingly also unnamed in her narration – husband and first born child, six months old as the novel opens. It is a visceral and haunting story of post-partum depression which begins:

“I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool, the water thirty-five degrees. It was the Sunday before a bank holiday. I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?”

This is not a mother who is sentimental for her child or the mystery of birth:

“If I’d closed my legs and grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already. The moment other women give birth they usually say, I can’t imagine my life without him now, it’s as though he’s always been here. I’m coming, baby! I want to scream, but I sink deeper into the cracked earth.”

University educated and from urban surrounds, the French countryside where she lives also depresses her:

“These people are going to make me lose it. I wish I had Egon Schiele, Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon for neighbours; then my son could grow up and develop intellectually by learning that there’s more to the world I brought him into than opening old skylights you can’t see out of anyway. As soon as all the others had escaped to their rooms to digest their meals, I heard my father-in-law cutting the grass beneath the snow with his new green tractor and thought that if I could lynch my whole family to be alone for one minute with Glenn Gould, I’d do it.”

Harwicz wrote the book listening ‘obsessively’ to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata n. 13 in E flat major, Op. 27 n. 1 and Glenn Gould‘s rendition of part of the Sonata captures the book’s mood.

As the novel progresses, in a stream of fevered thoughts, it is not always clear what actually takes place and what – notably an affair with another parent in the locality – is imagined:

“My baby was practically asleep on his feet but he still went on stumbling through the house, holding onto the curtains and the century-old coffee tables and throwing whatever he found to the floor. Ashtrays, cutlery. Maybe he was staying awake to make sure I didn’t spend the night in another man’s arms. It was a long time before I was finally able to put him in the cot, stop his crying, turn the pages of one of his books about astronauts or sea captains and convince him that the best thing you can do at night is sleep. Mummy’s telling lies.
[…]
As soon I stepped outside, I saw him and forgot about everything that had come before, about the smouldering house, about my little soldier sleeping with his eyes open like a rabbit, about all those days of anguished anticipation. And I devoured him. Because that, my dear son, is what the night is for.”

But her relationship with her, even in her account, remarkably patient husband is characterised by an extreme form of love-hate:

“We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love.”

(and some years later at her son’s birthday party)

“Something made me rush inside and shut myself in my bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I hope you all die, every last one of you. As usual, he came knocking on my door. Darling, honey, sugar, sweetheart, my bunny rabbit, my love, I can’t remember all the names he called me. And I said nothing. Are you okay? And I still said nothing. Come out, all the guests are leaving, don’t ruin this. Where are the party bags? And I said, Why don’t you leave me the hell alone and die. Just die, my love.”

The contemporary translation by Sarah Moses (Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina) and Carolina Orioff (Editor and Co-Director of Charco Press) adds to the power of the work.

It has, as other reviewers have noted, a flavour of Fever Dream meets Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. A striking novel, and I was immediately prompted to subscribe to Charco Press’s forthcoming releases.

PF

 

You may read my review of Die, My Love here.

Coming later this week, a guest post from the publisher and 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

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books

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 Paul Fulcher who provides his thoughts on The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers, published by Bluemoose Books.

Paul is a father of 3 girls, lives in Wimbledon, works in the City, and has a particular interest in the culture and literature of his wife’s homeland of Korea. He is also my other guest reviewer for this feature, Graham Fulcher’s, identical twin.

 

“So name your Gods lads. Honour them. Live amongst them. And always remember your place. Because England is changing. The wheels of industry turn ever onwards and the trees are falling still. Last week I did chance to meet a man down there in Cragg Vale who told me that soon this valley is to be invaded. He spoke of chimneys and waterways and told of work for those that wanted it, but work that pays a pittance and keeps you enslaved to those that make the money. This man – he told me that this land around us was soon no longer to be our land but that of those who want to reap and rape and bind those of us whose blood is in the sod.”

The independent publisher Bluemoose Books aims to deliver ‘brilliant stories that have travelled from Hebden Bridge, across the border into Lancashire, down to London across to Moscow, Sofia and Budapest and into the United States, Australia, India, Colombia and Greenland, Iceland and Bosnia Herzevogina.

Ben Myers’ The Gallows Pole certainly fits that bill, a story firmly rooted in the Yorkshire moors. Myers’s debut novel Pig Iron was winner of the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize – a prize awarded to ‘novels which dare to enter history and interrogate the past…literature which challenges perceived notions of genre and makes us think again about just what it is that we are reading’, but has chosen to remain with an independent publisher rather than adapt his work to more conventional tastes:

“I feel like as a writer, I’m from the margins, or the underground – a lot of my heroes and influences are people who are on the edge … so I think ‘why bother to chase [the big] publishers?’” (The Guardian)

The Gallows Pole tells the real-life story of “King” David Hartley, leader of the Cragg Vale Coiners in the 18th Century, who clipped gold coins and then produced forged coins with the clippings. Their activities were of sufficient economic import to come to the attention of Parliament and the London authorities, and Hartley’s life (and the novel) ended on the gallows.

Their approach, which, while considerably enriching themselves, enlisted the support of many (but not all) of the local populace is explained on the website Yorkshire Coiners maintained by a present-day direct descendent of David Hartley:

“The Cragg Vale Coiners would pay 22 Shillings for a full size coin (worth 21 shillings) and would then clip and shave up to forty Pence worth of gold from it before returning it to circulation for its face value of 21 Shillings. The lender themselves therefore gained a shilling as a result of the transaction whilst not actually being involved in the clipping. This helped to gain support locally and to conceal the activities of the Coiners, since nobody (except the excise collectors and the Government) suffered a loss and generally all involved made a small gain.”

“The Coiners would use the gold collected from about 7 or 8 genuine coins to create an imitation Portuguese Moidore, with a higher face value of 27 Shillings and feed this fake coin into circulation for its face value. They would only use about 22 Shillings worth of gold to create the fake, so making a substantial profit on each new coin they forged.”

An 18th century Portuguese Moidore:
description

One of the coiners tools from the Heptonstall Museum:
description

Reviewers saw present-day political references, to Margaret Thatcher’s antagonism to the North, in Myers debut novel that the author himself had not consciously placed there but agreed could be present as a sub-conscious metaphor (A Fiction Habit).

And with The Gallows Pole there are again obvious parallels (implicit and perhaps sub-conscious) to Brexit and the 2017 general election and the rebellion against globalisation. The Coiners saw themselves as fighting – what even David Hartley realises is a losing battle – against the economic forces of the industrial revolution: see the quote that opens my review.

Whereas the authorities – represented by the solicitor Robert Parker (believed by some to be the real-life model for Bronte’s Heathcliff) and the exciseman William Deighton – see them as a regressive resistance to positive change. Deighton wants to:

“Send a message. A message to the hill folk. That times were changing. The empire expanding. That men earned money not made it; that a country ran on rules. Rules for everyone. Call it society. Call it civilisation. From the crown all the way down. Rules. Laws. Restrictions. The dark days were over. New ways were coming. Big ideas. Ideas that would change the world. Call it economy. Call it industry. Call it England.”

And on a second read in December 2017, I could also see echoes of the current fad of cryptocurrencies, threatening to debase fiat money, and cryptoanarchy:

“He had been warned: the authoritarian grip was weakening and this way outright anarchy beckoned.”

Myers has also worked as a freelance music journalist and for each of his novels constructs a playlist ‘of songs and sounds that might shape the narrative. … compiled as one would an imaginary soundtrack to a film adaptation of the work.’

His playlist for this novel can be found at The Quietus, including Leadbelly’s version of The Gallows Pole (itself an adaption of the traditional song ‘The Maid Freed From the Gallows’), from which the novel takes both its name and its epigraph, and, my favourite, Winterfylleth’s The Divination Of Antiquity, from a band that produces ‘passionate, anthemic black metal inspired by the history, heritage and landscapes of England’.

Although the list excludes Chumbawumba’s ‘Snip, Snip, Snip’, directly inspired by the Coiners’ story.

“Pick a coin, any coin, and with a snip snip snip you turn a portuguese guinea to a threepenny bit; and every last watermark just curled up and died and now the king and the queen got a bit on the side. Don’t be bloody silly keep away from bloody Billy cause he’s shopping all the chopping going down along the valley, and supergrassing catches like a plague, to be sure, but it’s nothing that a bullet in the belly couldn’t cure.”

There is also a related musicality to the novel itself, a deliberately dull repetitiveness, strongly reminiscent of David Peace. Myers himself explains it perfectly:

“I was aiming to achieve in the novel – a sort of haunted and ethereal earthiness, which draws on a limited vocabulary and heavy use of repetition. The Gallows Pole features the names of people and places repeated over and over again almost to absurd and annoying levels, in an attempt to induce a trance or evoke a rural reverie within the reader.”

Yet at the same time, when it comes to descriptions of natural surroundings – the weather, flora and fauna and people of the vale – the prose is beautifully lyrical:

“The rain fell like the filings of a milled guinea bit onto a folded piece of paper.”

And describing the ‘supergrasses’ who eventually brought down the Coiners:

“All his life Joseph ‘Belch’ Broadbent had been shrouded in smoke. Years tending the charcoal clamp meant it flavoured not just his clothes and hair with the slow dampened burn of oak and willow and alder, nor merely tanned his skin with soot and blackened dirt, but was within him; it had smoked him from the inside out and left Belch Broadbent with rheumy lidded eyes and a hacking cough that rattled most violently in the early hours.

James Broadbent walked towards the distant rising plume that marked his father’s position as if it were a swarm of wasps leaving its fissure of an arid woodland floor or curl of a crawling tree root.
[…]

The earth was in his father’s scalp and his stubble. It had become him. His body hosted smoke. It was stirred into his essence to dilute that which made him human so that he was now part of the landscape and part of the fire; he was made of the smoke that billowed and rolled and tumbled during the slow process that took felled timber through combustion to become the shards and clots of carbon that fuelled fires and furnaces the length and breadth of Calderdale. He was wood-smoke manifest; man as a settled miasma. A nebulous fellow, burnt brume in stout boots, with a clay pipe clicking between what remained of his teeth.”

The Guardian has already made the comparison that The Gallows Pole might be 2017’s His Bloody Project, but in my view it is much much better than that. A notable point of comparison is that both feature excerpts of a condemned-cell confession but whereas HBP’s version was unrealistically literate, King David Hartley’s thoughts are written in a sort of pidgin English that reads oddly but works if read aloud (rather reminiscent of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, another Gordon Burn Prize winner), and give insight into his motivations, both his self-importance but also his doubts, and his rather delusional visions of the stag-men

“I saw them. Stag-headed men dancing at on the moor at midnight, nostrils flared and steam rising.”

Both the narrative tension and the perspective of the novel are at the micro-level in the enclosed world of the moors and particularly in the thoughts and actions of Hartley. We hear allusions to the impact of the debasement of the coin of the realm on the wider economy, but this largely happens off-page. And both the title of the novel and the fatalistic attitude of the Hartleys leave us in little doubt where the story will end: even the identity of their ultimate betrayer is pretty clear from the opening pages (hence lack of any spoiler alerts in my review).

Perhaps one small weakness of the work was the lack of development of Hartley’s wife.

Unbeknownst to her husband she salts away some of the Coiners output to protect her family from the likely hard times ahead, and, in reality, she bought a new home (for a considerable sum in hard cash) after her husband’s execution and outlived him for 30 or more years. It would have been interesting to have seen into her thoughts, as she acts mostly in the novel as a rather passive observer.

But that is a small flaw – and indeed perhaps no flaw at all, since no novel is entirely comprehensive – in a fascinating work. A book deserving of wider attention and one I hope to see – as His Bloody Project did – featuring in awards.

Highly recommended.

PF

 

You may read my review of The Gallows Pole here.

Next week on my blog look out for an interview with Benjamin Myers, 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