Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell
I read Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry To Disrupt The Peace in under forty-eight hours. I didn’t want it to happen that way, but it had to happen that way. Though I would definitely recommend reading this book, I probably wouldn’t recommend reading it in under forty-eight hours. Helen Moran’s brain is a tough one to take in such a concentrated dose.
Helen is an unlikable female character. I appreciate that about her. It sounds like an oxymoron, but I like unlikable female characters. I mean, I don’t like them, obviously, but I like when I encounter them, I like that they exist.
The book is about Helen staying with her adoptive family to investigate the death by suicide of her adoptive brother. Helen uses the word “adoptive” to describe her family 418 times over the course of the book. I know because I almost immediately started counting. I set the word off in brackets each time I saw it. In a way, it felt like the brackets were already there. She uses the word “adoptive” twenty times in the first chapter. This repetition of the word—it’s jarring. When you read any word that many times, it starts to look funny. Often, it loses its meaning. It becomes weird squiggles on the page. But every time Helen uses the word “adoptive,” I felt like it was growing stronger. Bigger. Like a hydra gaining exponential heads every time one head is lopped off.
On page 137, I crossed out “adoptive” and in its place, I wrote “alienated.” I think that’s what Helen really means. She’s alienated from her family, alienated from every person she encounters, and alienated from the reader. As she tries to piece together clues to the cause of her brother’s death, you try to piece her together. But you only catch glimpses. Like that painting, Nude Descending A Staircase, No. 2. You know there is a person there, but what sort of person is she?
Helen calls herself monstrous several times in the book. She reads The Odyssey and relates, not to Odysseus, “the colonizer,” but to the Cyclops. One thing becomes clear: her rage against her adoptive parents is potent. They are never cruel or abusive to her, but they have committed an unforgivable original sin: they are white people. Who brought up Korean children. In Milwaukee.
The searing heat of her fury rises off the page, like a steaming geyser bursting forth to disrupt the peace of an otherwise placid wilderness. “The two white people raised their Asian children to think Asian art was decorative,” she writes. “Oriental rugs and vases! Jade elephants! Enamel chopsticks!”
When Helen doesn’t feel monstrous, she feels decorative. She tells us she is “an extra in the movie of my own life.” Asked to check a box for her ethnicity, she can’t check “white” and she doesn’t want to check “Asian.” She wants instead to write in another option, the only one she identifies with: “adopted.”
There are other elements to her alienation; both her gender and sexuality also seem to exist somewhere outside of the available categories. The reader, asking what sort of a person Helen is, finds every aspect of her identity moves through liminal space. No box will ever be right.
This liminal space brings her right up to the edge of the abyss. Her adoptive brother, facing this abyss, found only one solution—what Helen calls “the obliteration of the self.” She doesn’t blame him, but this isn’t the option she chooses. She’s ok with staring into the abyss. And as a reader, you better be too. –Tara Marsden