The plot of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell is easy to summarize. A woman learns that her only brother has committed suicide, so she returns home to figure out, detective-like, why he did it.
But that summary doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the trippy, engrossing sensation of reading this book. Cottrell’s narrator, Helen Moran, is one of the most paradoxical and unforgettable creations in recent literature—a clever observer of people who mangles every social interaction, a rigid follower of rules who casually gives drugs to children, an exuberantly verbal thinker who rarely speaks. Her uniquely warped point of view is the second mystery that this hilarious and devastating novel invites readers to unravel.
To be more specific, the person who commits suicide is Helen’s adoptive brother. They are both Korean, adopted by the same milquetoast white couple in Milwaukee, but they are unrelated to each other by blood. Race only comes up explicitly a few times in the novel, which makes it all the more ominous: It’s impossible to know whether, or to what extent, Helen’s and her brother’s tragic eccentricities are the result of their experiences as Korean adoptees. If you choose to, you can read Sorry to Disrupt the Peace as a savvy exploration of racial fault lines in America.
About those tragic eccentricities: Helen’s brother is sullen and robotic. He eats plain white rice, wears the same light blue polo shirt every day, and treats everyone with the kind of forced politeness that is doomed to explode. Meanwhile, Helen is a nonstop mess. A disheveled former artist, she wears clothes that she picks up off the street, counsels at-risk kids for a living but does more harm than good, and seems incapable of realizing how rude she is. “You will ruin everything,” her father predicts, “and the worst part is, you won’t even know it.” He’s right. Despite her good intentions, Helen kills the family’s fresh flowers by placing them in a mop bucket, eats a whole cake by herself that was meant for the mourners, and misses her brother’s funeral entirely. She’s like an awful Amelia Bedelia. She’s like a phoenix, trying to be reborn, but stuck in the self-immolation stage.
Cottrell makes marvelous use of Helen’s skewed point of view—like when Helen walks in on her mother’s conversation with a grief counselor, Chad Lambo, who happens to be Helen’s old high school classmate.
Whose book is this? I interrupted.
My adoptive mother took the tissue from her face.
It was your brother’s.
Then her face retreated into the tissue.
The living room began to spin a little. It was your brother’s, she had said. She employed the word was not because it was no longer a book, but because my adoptive brother no longer owned it, because it could be said my adoptive brother no longer possessed anything. I collapsed into the wicker-basket chair.
Was not is, I said.
Was not is!
When a person dies, it is the end of a human life, I announced.
Then I said or I thought, What a difficult time it is! What a toll it has taken! My adoptive mother and Chad Lambo continued to look at me in amazement and disgust, a disgust reserved for cockroaches.
Although we, as readers, get to see her motivations, Helen seems incapable of explaining herself to the people around her. So she earns our trust, only to blow it when we realize how appalling her actions must appear to everyone else. This is how Cottrell turns a wreck of a character into an endlessly fascinating subject.
As a detective of her brother’s motives, Helen doesn’t accomplish much. But her inquiry leads to some meaningful introspection. Padding around her parent’s house, rooting through her brother’s old things, she thinks, “Now it seems every memory I have of him, new and old, must be seen, scrutinized, and apprehended through a critical lens, the lens of his suicide.” It’s revealing (and more than a little funny) when everyone in her family tells Helen, solemnly and sincerely, that they loved her brother more than her. Eventually her investigation to her own family feels “like staring at a wall for hours when you’re on drugs, the wall becomes packed with meaning and menace.”
Is Helen unstable, or is she grieving? Is there a difference? Can’t it be both? When she gets close to the source of her brother’s suicide, Helen gets deep. “My point is, how is anyone supposed to live with anything?”
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace introduces us to two very different siblings—one who wants to live, and one who doesn’t. Cottrell is sympathetic to both choices. If anything, Helen seems like the weird one for not committing suicide. After all, this is a character whose only comment about her First Communion is: “Stupid white bitches getting married to God!”
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is about the absurdity of using logic to understand suicide—or to understand life. It’s about the struggle to be understood, even (or especially) by your “loved ones”. It’s about the endless ways a society, or a family, can unintentionally disenfranchise its members, forcing them to walk the darkest of paths. It’s a riveting story from a hauntingly good writer.
Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and an Editor at Fiction Advocate.