MARCH 15, 2017
EARLY IN PATTY YUMI COTTRELL’S Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, a co-worker tells our narrator, Helen, that she developed post-traumatic stress disorder after she saw a person get hit by a truck in Tribeca. She says the person exploded: pieces of the body flew everywhere, and some of it sprayed her in the face. She asks: “How am I supposed to live with that?”
The question hangs over the entire novel. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is a stylized contemporary noir. It’s detached, lush, pulpy with contemporary references, and led by an outsider who feels alienated even from her own reality. 32 years old and partially employed, she ekes out an almost-homeless existence in New York City. One day while waiting for a delivery for her roommate, she gets a call telling her that her adoptive brother has killed himself.
Nobody in the family saw Helen’s brother’s suicide coming. In the aftermath of his death, Helen returns home to Milwaukee to investigate. She takes on the role of pseudo-detective, though her search leads less to the source of a crime, and more through the dark night of her soul.
Helen and her brother come from different parts of Korea, but shared the same psychologically exhausting experience of growing up as adopted Asian Americans in a white suburb of Milwaukee. Helen says:
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 nonwhite culture, I wrote to them once in a furious letter.
Growing up, Helen viscerally channeled the indignation of someone who found no models for fitting in. She even managed to get ejected from the Milwaukee outsider art scene. While Helen tended to wrestle with her situation by escaping, her brother instead folded inward, spending more time by himself at home. The only compatriot Helen had in Milwaukee was a guy who struggled with a similar burden of alienation and lived with his parents until he killed himself at the age of 29. How is a person supposed to live with that?
Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is rich with dark humor. Helen works as a counselor for troubled youth in Manhattan. She likes her job, and is a natural fit in her ability to relate to the struggle of being young, but she’s ill equipped to set the teenagers on a path different from her own. She wonders, “How was it that I was the only person who listened to the troubled people and treated them as peers instead of minions?” while she indulges them with candy and cigarettes — and smokes weed with them because it mellows them out.
In one scene, Helen ends up thinking, mistakenly, that the kids don’t know what a balloon is, that “they had never even seen a fucking balloon.” This captures the complication of her own slightly elevated privilege in the scenario, as well as her compulsion to connect with the teens but her inability to fully arrive at their level. She drinks several gin and tonics before work the next day and, to address the problem, brings in the 1956 French art movie, The Red Balloon. Helen remembers:
The overhead lights were on, making it difficult to see the screen. My face was bright red, like the balloon, which one of them observed astutely. I told them to focus on the beautiful film I was screening for their viewing pleasure and to stop looking at me. Then I broke the rules and turned off the lights. I spent the next five minutes or so pointing out for them how each scene was so art-fully composed, it was almost like watching a painting come alive.
She makes it halfway through the movie, then spends the rest of time in the bathroom throwing up.
Helen’s investigation into her adoptive brother’s suicide is, above all, a fumbling interrogation of the state of her own life. Helen has enormous trouble focusing and her energy is erratic, which makes her an unreliable detective. She sometimes works intensely, scribing condolence phone-calls in search of case intelligence. Other times she stops concentrating entirely, searching for squeaky drawers and cabinets that need fixing or trying to keep sympathy flowers watered by putting them in a nearby mop bucket that’s actually full of bleach. Remembering the time she went to see a free therapist, she says, “I only went because I wanted to know if there was a way to tamp down my anger, to stop disrupting the peace, my own included. You need a plan, said the therapist […] I never went back.”
The question of why Helen remains alive when her brother is dead is the book’s quiet obsession. Though estranged from her adoptive parents, Helen had stayed in touch with her adoptive brother via small exchanges. “I began to scroll through our text history and I could say that many of his texts were very basic and practical. KOBE BRYANT!!! said one of them.” It’s not that the two of them shared their feelings — they basically didn’t — but they shared the understanding that there was someone out there that endured the same experiences and kept on going.
But Helen more often responded to her hard circumstances with anger, whereas her brother tended to withdraw. Shortly before his death, he unexpectedly showed up on Helen’s doorstep in New York. He never left their parent’s home, and this made little sense. “He was not a flexible person,” she remembers, “and therefore he was very uncomfortable when he visited me in Manhattan.” Helen later finds out — after he’s dead — that he was on his way to Seoul to meet his biological mother. It was a final attempt to orient himself in a world where he could find no place. Once in South Korea and afraid, he abandoned the meeting and returned to Milwaukee.
The gorgeous cover of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace features a black-and-white photograph of a waterfall and evokes one of the therapeutic skills — called The Waterfall Coping Strategy — prescribed in the book. Helen’s co-worker who suffers from PTSD says that whenever she tries to fall asleep at night, she can’t help but think of the spray of that person’s blood on her face, and her therapist told her to instead think of the spray from a beautiful, peaceful waterfall. This encouragement conjures the fragile search for serenity that’s at the heart of this book — the ease with which a feeling can switch from something like the sensation of cool water to warm blood and back again.
“Like most normal people, my life force ebbed and flowed, ebbed and flowed,” Helen thinks. “At times I felt euphoric for no reason […] and then, an hour later, I started to feel depressed, like nothing was worth it, everything I did was a waste.” Helen describes the experience of what might be bipolar disorder. Yet she nonchalantly ascribes this experience to just about everybody. This captures the dangerous balance of Helen’s life, or a dangerous struggle for most. The search for peace might be especially difficult for our narrator, but it’s not easy for anyone.
When Helen comes home after her brother’s death, she turns her confusion and anger — her fear of being at fault for letting him die — on her devastated adoptive parents. She asks what he looked like the day of his death, and if anything was unusual, and what he was wearing. She interrogates them. She thinks, “Certainly something good would come from that, which would counter the terrible circumstances that produced his suicide.” She says, “What were your last words to my adoptive brother?”
With Helen holding her adoptive parents at arm’s length, it’s pretty easy to see their suffering, too. Even the word “adoptive,” used in every single reference to Helen’s parents, conveys the distance between them that, even under good circumstances, might be difficult to breach. “He never tells us anything,” Helen remembers her adoptive mother saying to her. In one scene, Helen’s adoptive father says that he blames himself for her brother’s death: “I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself. I didn’t see it coming at all … He reached out to touch my arm and began to weep again. I let him touch my arm even though I was very uncomfortable and did not know what to do.”
At times, you want to shake the narrator and shout, “You know this isn’t only hard for you?” But though also emotionally stunted, Helen’s brother was a lifeline for her to the rest of the world — the only person who could relate to her isolating experience. “I want to be white,” Helen remembers him saying to her once. “I want to be white, too, I said to him.” They confess that, as kids, they both sometimes prayed at night that they would wake up white.
How does a procedural end when the detective has more vulnerability than grit, when the case is far from the point? Late in the book, Helen discovers a document on her brother’s laptop — a calm, measured suicide note that basically details everything from the past year. In some ways, this late touch is perfect: of course Helen would miss so many of the answers in plain sight as she obsesses over dead-ends of evidence and meaning, making her parents and neighbors deeply uneasy. Of course the answers are blatant, right there on the computer. Still, it’s a bit anti-climactic. It suggests a type of closure that feels a little too easy, and a little bit beside the point.
But the novel recovers its brilliantly churlish drive in its return to Helen’s perspective, and her stubborn obtuseness. After reading the suicide letter, Helen is moved to help the morning of her brother’s funeral, and decides to take on a series of out-of-character tasks. While running a set of errands that would be manageable for most, Helen makes a series of imperfect indecisions that eventually lead her to getting a flat tire in a rough part of Milwaukee and missing her adoptive brother’s funeral. “How do we live with ourselves?” She wonders as she sits on the curb. “There must be a way, but no one has ever told me.”
Despite their shared hardship, Helen and her brother are different. She remembers the summer when she followed Fiona Apple around on tour across the country, sleeping in 24-hour diners and the homes of innocent-looking strangers. “As I remember that time and how colorless everything was, everything except Fiona Apple, I realize it’s possible I was as miserable as my adoptive brother, and I understood how this misery and depression would lead to suicide.” But just as her brother found meaning in death, Helen finds it in life — in returning to her urban teens, in her ongoing effort to maintain the peace, her own included. Both characters tragically founder in their efforts to serve others, but Helen takes quite a different route. “I didn’t kill myself for some reason or another. Inside me was a force that wanted to stay alive.”