- Odditorium: Stories
- Bellevue Literary Press, 252 pp.
That Melissa Pritchard has won numerous awards for her short fiction will not surprise new readers who come to The Odditorium with no previous knowledge of this accomplished writer. While the collection of eight stories has its highs and lows, Pritchard’s newest book offers an unforgettable tour through the author’s exceptionally rich prose worlds. From the suggestively self-reflective to the evocatively political, The Odditorium immerses the reader in stories woven from a dense and dynamic imagination, exquisitely executed and brilliantly textured. The collection opens with a paired set of epigraphs: an excerpt of a letter from Schopenhauer to Goethe and a snippet from a 19th century children’s book. The former deals with the necessity of philosophical inquiry in the face of world-shattering revelations while the latter is a whimsical ejaculation: “Odds Nipperkins! Cried Mother Bunch on her broomstick, here’s a to-do!” The juxtaposition manages to be arresting rather than affected, and the pairing perfectly sets the stage for Pritchard’s enigmatic and beguiling stories in which richly-drawn, nearly otherworldly characters come face to face with the unfathomable abyss of history, meaning, and existence.
If I’m making The Odditorium seem impossibly lovely, that’s because the balance of it truly is. A few of the stories are more effective than others, but where Pritchard hits, she slams it out of the park. Each of her stories is a meditation on the tension between presumed opposites—art and life, history and fiction, sanity and madness. In “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” and “The Nine-Gated City,” Pritchard’s protagonists—both white, American, and hopelessly bourgeois—travel to and work in foreign cities. Captain Brown is a military doctor in WWII, helping to reopen a crumbling edificial hospital in England. Sidonie Recora, a part-time journalist, travels to India to do research for a piece on sex trafficking. Both characters, thrusting themselves into the horrors of warfare, on the one hand, and extreme poverty and exploitation, on the other, find themselves staring, like Paul Bowle’s Kit in The Sheltering Sky, into the yawning abyss of their own meaningless lives. The drama and horror of their surroundings throws their own hopeless blasé-ness into sharp relief, and neither Captain Brown nor Sidonie Recora emerge unscathed.
“Watanya Cicilia” draws an implicit parallel between the lives of two enigmatic figures from American history: Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. Both characters, in Pritchard’s telling, are subject to the violence and exploitation of a newly American way of expelling and enslaving in the name of homesteading and a newly burgeoning domesticity. Later in life, these two characters meet while touring the country—along with Buffalo Bill Cody—in a traveling show that heralds the demise of Western expansion. The famed Indian chief who had a major role in the destruction of George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn finds a warm sense of kinship with the dazzling young sharpshooter. “Watanya Cicilia” opens with the young Annie being essentially enslaved by a couple who take advantage of the girl’s vulnerability when her mother is forced by financial necessity to send two of her children to live with strangers, and Annie’s new “guardians” are canny enough to cloak their abuse in the guise of benevolent stewardship. After running away, Annie builds herself a career as a trick shooter who simply can’t miss. Sitting Bull, for his part, is taken with the sparkling young woman and adopts her as a child of affiliation in the wake of the devastation of his tribe—herded onto undesirable and infertile land, forced to adapt themselves to the ways of colonizers creeping inexorably onto their ancestral homelands.
Somewhat differently, “The Hauser Variations” and “Pelagia, Holy Fool,” are both portraits of extreme innocence, threaded with a kind of sublime martyrdom wrought via a violence of matching ferocity. The Odditorium opens with the latter, a story about a Russian peasant girl, who, after suffering a fit of some kind, becomes a “Holy Fool,” a village simpleton by turns the subject of abuse and adulation by her community and the religious orders to which she is eventually subjected. In “The Hauser Variations,” a boy who might be the illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte is raised in nearly total isolation, sequestered from society in an underground cell. When he is finally introduced into society, his radical unfitness for his contemporary life leads to his being passed from person to person as a series of specialists—philosophers and doctors—alternately take care of him and seek, in some ways, to integrate him into society. Pritchard handles both stories with evocative richness and a heartbreaking delicacy.
In the best story in the collection, “Patricide,” Pritchard masterfully links the legacy of Edgar Allan Poe to a tale of aging sisters, meeting in an inn that had previously been the childhood home of that famous author. A teacher of nineteenth century literature in an elite girls’ academy, the narrator has been obliged to take a leave of absence after being accused of sexual misconduct by one of her students. Led into a ruinous flirtation by a mal-intentioned nymphette, the narrator, a closeted lesbian, is driven from the school in a haze of scandal. In “Patricide,” she has traveled to Virginia to see her sister, Avis, at a time when both women find themselves marginalized—socially and economically. They meet on this occasion because their increasingly incoherent and wealthy father has decided to cut Avis out of his will. The title of the story gives some clue as to the content of the women’s unspoken ruminations. Throughout the story, the narrator contemplates Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse,” the “nonbenign aspect of one’s personality”; Poe “understood how the shadow, the imp, given its way, its mean head, would destroy each of us with guile, cunningly, according to our natures.” Contemplating patricide, the narrator shrinks progressively toward that imp and the horrifying freedom it offers.
The Odditorium is a stunning read, dense and intricately woven, masterfully assembled and sensitively rendered. Pritchard’s text somehow comes across as at once delicate and forceful. Her interest in history—literary and cultural—in this collection adds a depth of focus and an attention to nuance that is truly arresting. These stories revolve around marginal figures—the people whose actions and lives lurk in the shadowy edges of accepted versions of the past. Pritchard’s stories immerse themselves in this crepuscular darkness in order to expose the way that such stories and such lives shape our own in ways we are very well unaware of. In fact, Pritchard’s narrators through the whole collection, and maybe even the collection itself, work like Ripley’s fact checker in the eponymous story: “For every navigator, a compass. For every farmer, a seed. For every doctor, a symptom. For every actor, a play. For every charlatan, a fool. For the body of Robert Ripley, there is his supernal appendage, Mr. Pearlroth of the carbuncled bottom, here now, talking to you.” Thus, The Odditorium collects and explores just such oddities and intriguing inconveniences that lurk just beyond the margins of the textbook. Here are the historical characters on whom our ideas of creativity, art, and innocence are based. Here are the seekers of meaning, the lovers of life.