The first story of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s that I encountered was about a harsh school mistress chastising her students during a trip to the zoo. Her voice struck me as singular, her characters, haunted, abject, and captivating. They still do. But don’t take my word for it, read her “Young Robert,” read her “Peace.” She has said that when she writes she pictures herself “as a lonely old man who has just taken a room in a decrepit boardinghouse. He sits at a desk and tries to write himself out of the present moment. Anything can happen.” Yes, anything can and does happen in her stories, but also this lonely old man stands beyond time. There are switches of wood, bedbugs, and pitiable schoolmistresses. Her first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, has garnered comparisons to Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and Robert Walser.
Patty Yumi Cottrell and I spoke at length via email about her novel, her fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s houses, and the “grotesquely strange” human soul. For our correspondence, we agreed on a prearranged process: each message would be written after having taken a walk, and each message would contain an image. What follows are are the results.
Before my walk today I put on a jacket I haven’t worn in ages because it’s 70 degrees in February — in Chicago. I detest the long winters here and relish this interjection of warmth, but I also can’t escape how obscene it is to enjoy this first wave of global warming. When I put on the jacket, in the pocket I found a fortune from last year. It says “You will be awarded some great honor.” And I thought, what an auspicious beginning to our conversation. Of course I am thinking of your novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, and how each time I read the book it succeeds in both destroying me while making me laugh and my heart swells with empathy for Helen as she attempts to piece together the reasons behind her adoptive brother’s suicide. I’ve never read such a delightful yet devastating novel about suicide and loss. I would posit: I think Helen would hate the phrase “my heart swells” — she wouldn’t want it. I do think she wants to be seen, and she isn’t by her family. She is in her 30s, shares a cramped studio apartment in Manhattan with a roommate, and is estranged from her adoptive family. When her adoptive brother kills himself, her parents don’t reach out to her, they let her Uncle Geoff make the call and he emphasizes that no one expects her to come home for the funeral. She does return to Milwaukee, to seek out clues to her brother’s suicide, attempting to keep her grasp on the universe, it seems? She’s unhinged and, yes unreliable too, yet as I see it she’s perhaps the truest, sanest person in her family: unable or unwilling to play their games of social propriety, keeping up appearances, she’s blamed for not forging a connection. For her severity toward her family she was once called admiringly “a coldhearted bitch.” Perhaps this ability to tell the truth, or at least her truth, and cause (their) displeasure is where Helen is/was divergent from her adoptive brother?
I like what you’ve said here. Thank you. I don’t know what’s the truth or insane or sane. I wrote the book in a state of feeling unhinged and uncertain about reality. Life was unraveling. In a way, it was the perfect moment to write a book. Or to begin writing.
Helen is a fairly resourceful character despite all of her flaws. Her investigation is about discovering the truth, but even that seems problematic, as if anyone can ever know the truth about a person’s life and death. I think that’s impossible, so the search itself is flawed. I can empathize with that choice though. She does the best she can considering the circumstances and who she is. That’s pretty admirable even if she’s kind of an asshole at times. Her brother is my favorite character though. He’s tender, delicate, and strong.
Right now I’m in the desert. It’s clearing to come out here. The plants are special. Two men just walked by me and one of them said, “It’s very Chinese.” I kind of hate overhearing other people’s conversations.
I love eavesdropping, the glimpses into other conversations, intruding on an intimacy you haven’t earned, briefly, then falling out. I like peering into windows of houses for the same reason, imagining how the lives within intermingle and part. Today I walked past a large modern structure under construction, the house looks like a series of connected boxes and has large desk in the front window — but from my vantage point the window appeared to contain another smaller, cozier house.
I have been thinking so much about houses and dwellings in relation to your book: what a house means to Helen’s adoptive parents, Helen’s own shared studio that her brother thought suited her, the homeless woman in Helen’s chapbook: “How to Survive in New York on Little to Nothing.” Helen admires doorways, and her brother too says he wants to keep doors shut — metaphorically. Can you talk about the houses in your book, what a doorway offers, the threat a door poses? What does one’s dwelling say about them? And also of your fascination with Thomas Bernhard’s house?
The space of the house is one of inertia and avoidance. The furniture is off-putting, the rooms are suffocating and at the same time places of rest. No one in the house knows how to communicate with one another. I don’t know what the doors represent. It’s weird to talk about doors without thinking about the band The Doors. They’re not that cool, but when I was in high school I used to love them. A friend and I would try to smoke really gross weed and drive around and listen to them. What a recipe for disaster and trouble!
I was just telling a friend how sometimes I Google street view some of my houses from childhood. I walk around the neighborhood and look at the plants and trees. I have no idea if that’s normal or not. In my favorite house, which was in suburban Pittsburgh, I had my own bathroom. There was a skylight above the toilet. I always thought that was weird. It’s my favorite house because there I was the most miserable. Every day I can wake up grateful I don’t live on Wedgewood Drive anymore, so that’s kind of a gift.
I love looking at images of Thomas Bernhard’s houses in Austria, how their exteriors seem harsh and weird, like his writing. That mirroring between his houses and his writing appeals to me, maybe because I’ve been a lifelong renter, scrounging around for scraps to inhabit. You never saw where I lived in Brooklyn, but my bedroom was windowless, the walls were curved, there was a foot of space between the bed and these dressers that had been in the bedroom for years before we moved in. One day, I was cleaning behind them and I found a few bullets.
Childhood misery can become such an attachment. It’s a conundrum. I just saw that Whistler’s “Mother” is on view in Chicago — I was forced to stand in line to see it as a child, and when I actually saw it I thought people were crazy. It was so overrated, so muted. My first thought hearing of its current tour was disbelief that it’s still this thing — but also, that I want see it. Will I have a different experience? It was the first piece of art I detested.
Helen’s childhood misery is demonstrated as one long act of refusal. Makes me think of Bernhard’s misandry, but then also it’s Bernhard I think of with the balding European white male apparition. I sense an anxiety of influence but also of disconnect, that Helen isn’t his heir, can’t be. He may be Helen’s father’s wet dream but as the biological daughter of a Korean woman, there’s so much distance. The balding European man, too, is helpful in some way isn’t he? How do you see his role? What does Helen need? I’m also curious about writers you read as a child, and now, who are your influences/guides?
I feel certain you will love that painting as an adult because it will remind you of that exact moment you realized it was possible to detest a piece of art.
I like what you’ve said about anxiety and disconnect. I tried to see clearly this balding European man, but from where he came or what’s his role, I can’t say. I don’t know. I think it’s okay to admit that. Brandon Shimoda linked his appearance to whiteness and suburbia. I think the European man could be an accumulation and materialization of those suburban experiences. But I don’t really know. For me, writing this book was about freedom. I wanted to work with a voice in which anything could materialize at any point. That freedom is the main thing that compelled me to continue on, even when I had trouble. So Helen is sitting on a chair, starting to freak out a little at her inability to communicate with her parents, and a balding European man appears. In my opinion, that’s perfectly reasonable.
Let’s see, when I was little I liked Anne of Green Gables. I related to her situation as an orphan and outsider. As an adult I’ve probably been the most influenced by my friends who are artists and musicians. Many of them live in Milwaukee and Chicago. I admire people who have figured out a way to navigate the madness of this world. Russell Westbrook, Bill Callahan, Jesse Ball, Fiona Apple, Renata Adler, Kara Walker, etc.
When put that way, I see the balding European man as a kind of proxy for Helen in her adoptive parents’ house, whether imagined, hallucinatory, or not, he is a needed (albeit aloof) companion in her investigation, and an injection of Western rationality. As in, he assures her there are clues and thus a logic behind her brother’s suicide. Though I guess there is, really: Helen discovers he orchestrated his death in a way that he didn’t engage in his life.
For me the suburbs surface in the blandness Helen’s brother attempts to hide behind: the white rice, the vanilla ice cream, the ways he hid his difference. I’m thinking too of lies he tells to appease: the interest in fly-fishing, the professor he told Helen he assisted. It’s generous and tragic, this denial. He’s very good at keeping secrets.
To me, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is very much about navigating the madness of a world where more time and energy is spent in denying or mitigating the extent of its madness. Beauty lies in acknowledging this, and finding a way through it? I just saw Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, and I was so relieved and frustrated to see Uncle Vanya fail at any attempt of ordering his life. It was cathartic. He couldn’t even hit, let alone kill, the man he took shots at! Helen’s adoptive brother is perhaps as forlorn as Vanya, but he has agency, and, well, he succeeds.
This navigating the madness of the world: is this process ever past tense? Perhaps the beauty of finding a way through it lies in showing that it’s possible? How is anyone supposed to live with anything? Helen asks this of Elena and now I ask it of you.
The navigation of the madness of the world is endless. I agree with you, that Helen’s brother does have agency, and perhaps integrity, too.
I don’t know how anyone lives with anything. I do the best I can, but there are days I just want to zone out and watch the NBA and listen to Royal Trux and smoke a cigarette, if I smoked cigarettes, which I do not. I used to smoke a lot. I remember Jesse Ball suggested lucid dreaming an impossibly large cigarette, to cope with the effects of withdrawal.
In my opinion, the way through the madness is to see things clearly, to allow yourself to be surprised, and to have a sense of humor. Now that I’m looking at what I just typed, it sounds like advice for a marriage. Not that I’ve ever been married. Maybe another way to navigate the madness of the world is to not get married. This is what I’m thinking today. It might change tomorrow.
Oh, Patty, I loved smoking too. I had my first cigarette on my 14th birthday; later that year I was caught smoking in the graveyard at school. As I recall my mother was pissed but amused — something in line with:
“The continuous work of our life is to build death.”
That’s Simone de Beauvoir quoting Montaigne in the opening line of her Ethics of Ambiguity, which I just started rereading. As soon I read the sentence I was struck by how it’s a defining tenet in STDTP.
And maybe life is like a long marriage? I feel like Helen needs new coping strategies, the waterfall coping strategy is soothing, but like bad self-help, the Fiona Apple coping strategy was perhaps more effective?
Your narrators can be so severe, abject and so gripping. I’m thinking of Helen, but also the narrator of your recent story in The White Review. I know you spoke of freedom being significant to writing the novel, but what draws you to a character?
That quote from Montaigne reminds me of the Bernhard phrase from his novel Correction: “deathward existence.” A page after “deathward existence” appears, there is, “The question has always been only, how can I go on at all, not in what respect and in what condition.”
Out of context, that line seems dramatic, but when I came across it, I remember finding it dry and funny and serious.
In general, I am repulsed by my characters, and yet, I’m drawn to them, sometimes I even admire them. I like characters who are engaged with their world, their circumstances, their flaws. I have a fondness for neurotic and delusional humans, so why wouldn’t I write about them? I think my short stories are closer to poems and drawings in terms of content and form, rather than traditional short stories with fully developed characters and plots. I draw my short stories with thin, ugly, haphazard lines. So the characters themselves can be thin and flat. They stay the same, because there’s not enough space in the stories for them to change.
I’ve passed a number of sidewalk lending libraries during our exchange, and whenever I have I’ve peeked inside. Perhaps because I’m already thinking of your novel, I’ve been surprised by how the titles engage:
Twenty Things Adopted Children Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew (I could see Helen’s adoptive parents having this book, but also it failing to bridge their distances)
Contribuer à votre succès (a French, bougier version of Helen’s guide: How To Survive in New York on Little to Nothing)
Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise (opening with a passage about never having known someone who killed themself, never having read a suicide note)
Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena
This last book I took. Most of the correspondence is one-sided, Kafka’s letters published in a series without Milena’s responses. He writes of lung health and sanatoriums and Milena’s critiques of German spas. One of Milena’s essays in the appendix concerns whether letters of notable people should be published. She chastises those who are disappointed by artists lives —–“If you are disappointed by an artist, my dear girl, this is only because you haven’t understood how to find him, and don’t know how grotesquely strange the human soul is.”
The grotesque strangeness of the human soul! This is what you’re saying about character, no? I then thought of Egon Schiele, the way he conjures this too. Perhaps your work is neo-expressionist? It made me wonder, which books, which visual artists/movements do you feel your work shares an affinity with?
I love Esmé Wang’s The Border of Paradise. You should go back to the sidewalk library and get it. Go, immediately! I’m excited for her next book, The Collected Schizophrenias on Graywolf.
I own Letters to Milena, but haven’t opened it. I don’t know if I’m afraid to, or what, but that line you’ve quoted makes me want to read it. It makes me sad that Milena’s responses do not exist. Isn’t that sad?
You’re right about the grotesqueness of the human soul. I like Egon Schiele. I don’t think I’d align my work with any artistic movements. I pick and choose the artists I like, disregarding time or movements. So I like Brueghel, Kara Walker, José Lerma, Glenn Ligon, Allison Schulnik, Mark Bradford, Tintoretto, etc.
I think my work has a lot in common with Tyson and Scott Reeder and John Riepenhoff, and many other artists from Milwaukee. They were all part of this scene at The Green Gallery, one of of my favorite places in the world. We would play basketball on the weekends and have dance parties in attics. All of this informs what I write about and how I see the world. There’s a lightness to what goes on at The Green Gallery. It’s never heavy-handed, it’s playful and fun. John Riepenhoff and his brother Joe were some of the first people who acknowledged me as a musician and artist. So I would align myself with them. Of course, I was a failure as an artist and musician, and that’s why today I write. But I’m in debt to them because they encouraged me to fail. And that’s a beautiful thing to do for another human, to encourage him or her to fail.
Painting by John Riepenhoff.
It is late in the fourth Act of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and the romantically devastated yet resilient Nina Zarechnaya draws a parallel between her life and that of a seagull that has been shot and killed near her family’s country home. The play hinges on this moment, which dispassionately asserts how grand aspirations cannot be dismissed, even if they are brought low by human recklessness, superficiality, and indifference:
Men are born to different destinies. Some dully drag a weary, useless life behind them, lost in the crowd, unhappy, while to one out of a million…comes a bright destiny full of interest and meaning…For the bliss of being an actress I could endure want, and disillusionment, and the hatred of my friends, and the pangs of my own dissatisfaction with myself…I am so tired. If I could only rest…You cannot imagine the state of mind of one who knows as he goes through a play how terribly badly he is acting. I am a sea-gull — no — no, that is not what I meant to say. Do you remember how you shot a seagull once? A man chanced to pass that way and destroyed it out of idleness. I feel the strength of my spirit growing in me every day. I know now, I understand at last, that…it is not the honor and glory of which I have dreamt that is important, it is the strength to endure…and when I think of my calling I do not fear life.
Now I am a devoted Chekhovian from a long line of devoted Chekhovians, but it has never been less than a struggle for me to admit that Chekhov, despite his prodigious talent and the pains he went to “to get the sound right,” was certainly guilty of allowing his authorial presence to overwhelm a character. To me, Nina’s speech less resembles that of a naïve 19-year-old than the domineering, 35-year-old, world-weary, consumptive male, so much so that I’m not entirely convinced that Chekhov, consistently ahead of his time, wasn’t making some entirely other kind of meta-textual joke.
Or maybe he just blew it. Getting dialogue right has never been easy. Even the ancients, unburdened by modern conventions of verisimilitude, had their reasons for being concerned with making the text sound right. For modern authors, this task has come down in the form of a necessity to capture the patterns of ephemeral speech in physical form in such a way that it might, at least, suggest authenticity, plausibility, durability. The plain fact is that if it doesn’t sound real, how many modern readers will bother to venture beyond page two?
But what tack to follow when one encounters literature — celebrated literature — that presents itself as fact but sounds like so much fiction?
“We had an Invalids’ Home in our town. Full of young men without arms, without legs. All of them with medals. You could take one home…they issued an order permitting it. Many women yearned for masculine tenderness and jumped at the opportunity, some wheeling men home in wheelbarrows, others in baby strollers. They wanted their houses to smell like men, to hang up men’s shirts on their clotheslines. But soon enough they wheeled them right back…They weren’t toys…It wasn’t a movie. Try loving that chunk of man.”
So who is that? Kurt Vonnegut? W.G. Sebald? Kōbō Abe?
When 2015 Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich began writing her cycle on Soviet history, variously referred to as “Voices from Utopia” or “A History of Red Civilization,” she had little idea of what she was getting into. As she recounted in a recent talk, “it wasn’t until finishing up my interviews for ‘The Last Witnesses’ [not yet available in English translation] that I understood what I was describing with this approach. I wanted to write about this paradise, in the Russian understanding of it.”
This week, Alexievich’s most recent book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets was released in the United States, taking its place in an estimable lineup of work whose telos it is to capture the sense and nonsense of the Soviet Union. Other titles of this pedigree include notably, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. And yet, despite those novels’ indispensability for a fuller understanding of Soviet history, neither the metered didacticism of the former nor the engaging casual authority of the latter achieve the effect of Alexievich’s collage of first-hand testimony in Secondhand Time (the fifth and final volume in her Red Civilization series, though only the fourth to appear in English translation).
Alexievich, it turns out, has different rocks to turn over. Her text ranges wide, and never has utopia appeared quite so dystopian as it does in the recorded witness of the disenfranchised, the embittered, the deceived, and the delusional that inhabit these pages. Her method is that of seeker, itinerant. She wanders the blasted and ill-remembered territories of the former USSR, encountering a host of characters — dime-store philosophers, ex-military, ex-State security turned private consultant, the rural poor, and memorably, a raft of widows unhinged by the injustice of their loss — but each with a tale to tell and bread to break. It is these communal interactions, these simple lives, that give her oral history of dysfunction its heft. In this way Alexievich helps make sense of a situation as impossible to explain as it is to deny.
This urgency to assist us in grasping the Soviet conundrum comes across nowhere so effectively as in one particularly idiosyncratic mode of Alexievich’s reporting in Secondhand Time. Here she includes longish sections of seemingly scattershot testimony, unreferenced and decontextualized, presented rapid-fire, as if she were simply regurgitating what she heard while walking through a crowded railway station, jotting down overheard snippets of conversation, allowing herself a liberal dose of ellipses to reflect the bits she didn’t quite catch.
‘The devil knows how many people were murdered, but it was our era of greatness.’ — ‘I don’t like the way things are today…but I don’t want to return to the sovok, [discredited, retrograde “Soviet way” of thinking & living] either. Unfortunately, I can’t remember anything ever being good.’ — ‘I would like to go back. I don’t need Soviet salami, I need a country where people were treated like human beings.’ — ‘There’s only one way out for us — we have to return to socialism, only it has to be Russian Orthodox socialism. Russia cannot live without Christ.’ — ‘Russia doesn’t need democracy, it needs a monarchy. A strong and fair Tsar. The first rightful heir to the throne is the Head of the Russian Imperial House, the Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna…’
These sections, subtitled “Snatches of Street Noise and Kitchen Conversations” go on for pages, like the graphomaniacal, rambling thesis of some importunately zealous, nicotine-oozing Marxist — and Fulbright hopeful — theater arts student from Lugansk. And while the collective dissonance of these quotations might rightly clang on the Western ear, to me they sound like home. The complaints, the confusion, the grasping for meaning recorded in these pages could have been lifted, verbatim, from conversations I’ve had around Kyiv with an old landlady, a wannabe capitalist rainmaker, a frighteningly accessorized Orthodox pilgrim, or a nicotine-oozing Marxist theater arts major…
Like the improbably warped and yet wonderfully apt associations that spilled out of Chekhov’s imagination, the reporting in “Secondhand Time” makes extraordinary demands of the reader, while offering — to the patient reader — insight otherwise unavailable into what made the Soviet clock tick, albeit counterclockwise. This is a book rendered meaningful, rendered necessary, because of the difficulties it presents and the contradictions it documents. Its truth lies in the resolute confusion and resultant collective cognitive dissonance captured by Alexievich, and in her refusal to pronounce judgment on even a word of it.
Secondhand Time is a strong closing act to Svetlana Alexievich’s five-book cycle chronicling the last days of the Soviet Union, and of the effects of a dispirited socialism and cynical political apparatus on the lives of the Soviet rank and file. In contrast to her previous work, the absence of a single defined subject — Chernobyl, Afghanistan, Women in War — results in a book that is certainly less focused, but no less disturbing than her earlier histories.
Seventy years of Soviet socialism has given birth to the homo sovieticus, and if Alexievich accomplishes anything here, it is to alert us to his existence, as well as to the grave error involved in the summary dismissal of his complaint, or graceless satisfaction at his profanation. She takes the jingoish caricature, the pulp-fiction rogue, the faceless millions of victims of historical record, and restores to them a voice — their own.
Like Chekhov, Svetlana Alexievich is an author who writes in Russian though does not self-identify as such. She is a messenger of no particular fealty save that owed to her story. Her body of work leaves us with more than a dry history of a time, a place, a people, but with a document composed of living breath. Breathing it in, we are compelled to clasp our hat to our head and set off to nudge, to jolt, and to buffet our way through crowds of former Soviet citizens — Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Buryats, Tajiks, Latvians, Georgians — at the Kyiv, Novosibirsk, or St. Petersburg vogzal and off toward our train.
And perhaps, climbing aboard, we see there in our coupe a fair-haired young woman wearing a beret, a small dog on her lap, her luggage marked with the name of her country estate at L____________…