Sorry To Disrupt The Peace
by Patty Yumi Cottrell
Published 2017 by McSweeney’s
$24.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1944211301
By Noah Sanders
The cover of the hardback edition of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel, Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, features a black and white waterfall serenely pouring down a rocky face. Removing the cover exposes the shockingly lime-green exterior of the book itself. Embossed across its textured cover is the standard disclaimer that this is a “work of fiction” and the characters within are “products of the author’s imagination.” It’s an apt metaphor for the book’s narrator, Helen Moran, a 32-year old woman, burying her questionable sanity beneath a combination of denial and coping methods. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace starts with Helen discovering that her adopted brother, Max, has killed himself. The news sends Helen back to her adopted home, Milwaukee, an unwanted private investigator seeking to learn the truth behind her brother’s death. Helen’s search is a slow, nauseating spiral of discovery, her erratic hunt for clues about her brother’s reasoning pushing her, and the reader, closer and closer to an understanding of herself. Cottrell places the reader within the mind of Helen, an unaware first-person narrator, and hidden behind the wall of her delusions, the book becomes a strange, sometimes comic journey, into the dark, weirdness of her self.
Helen Moran is an unaware narrator along the lines of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly or Hal in the opening chapter of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The world she describes is akin to the hall of mirrors in a dusty funhouse—everything’s there, but how it looks is just a bit off. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and Cottrell handles it ably. The closer Helen gets to Max’s reasoning behind his suicide—mentally and geographically—the crazier she acts out. Cottrell writes Helen as a tireless self-promoter, imbued with false confidence, plodding forward without rhyme or reason, smashing through anything that lands in her path. In her mind, nothing is wrong with her, everything she does is right, everything else is a lightly veiled attack against her. It’s difficult to like Helen—she spends a good deal of the book throwing up or pooping, hallucinates an Eastern European man, and is friendly only when it suits her—but like a good detective novel, we’re pulled along by the promise of the author throwing the curtain off the central mystery of Max’s death. In a way, this is a mystery novel: the reader wants to know why Max died, but as Helen’s investigation stumbles forward, it becomes clear that the true conundrum is Helen herself. “Behind every suicide is a door,” Cottrell writes. “If you open the door you might find things you wish you never knew.” There’s a comic ineptitude to Helen’s investigation. Even when “clues” are screaming up at her, she turns her head. She won’t go into Max’s room, and her only witnesses are a couple of Max’s old friends, most of whom have no interest in talking to her. Instead Helen spends her time lolling about the house, taking short walks, generally just thinking about Max and his role in her life, and hers in his. But, her poor investigatory skills are simply a smokescreen—some part of Helen seems to know that by searching out the answers behind Max’s death, she’s really digging into herself. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace is a detective novel turned inwards, the elusive suspect lingering in the shadows, Helen Moran herself.
There’s a general sense of unease to the book. Cottrell plays off the standard views of affluent suburbia—Helen’s parents are bland, sweater wearing knick-knack collectors—the author painting Milwaukee in the hues of Midwestern nostalgia as filtered through Helen’s tilted worldview. Everything feels slightly askew, everything feels vaguely sinister. It makes the setting and the characters outside of Helen hard to pin down, superficial in a purposeful way, the reader subject only to Helen’s far-reaching whims.
As much as Sorry To Disrupt The Peace subverts the tropes of detective novels, don’t expect any easy answers. This is Helen’s book, for good or for bad, and though her search for answers may show us what’s behind the waterfall, the resolution isn’t tied up in a neat little bow. The answers Helen seeks aren’t easy ones—why do people kill themselves? —and the book dwindles to a stop, with little sense of closure. But this isn’t a whodunit, it’s a story about a damaged woman trying to find herself. Loose ends are par for the course. Or, as Helen says, “The problem with an investigation is people will continue to investigate until they have found something, anything and only then, when they have found something, will they close the investigation.”