The Odditorium: Stories
by Melissa Pritchard
Bellevue Literary Press; 252 p.
Melissa Pritchard’s eighth book, The Odditorium, is a collection of short stories with a giant vague Annie Dillard quote (“Melissa Pritchard is one of our finest writers.”) on the front cover. Where is she one of our finest writers? At Veselka on 2nd Avenue on a Sunday night? At the big annual Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Lorrie Moore? But I’m not here to nitpick Pritchard’s blurb choice. I’m here to review The Odditorium.
It’s difficult to assess the collection holistically, as the only unifying characteristic of the book is Pritchard’s precise, musical prose. I agree with Dillard—Pritchard is one of our finest writers. Her language is handled with the restraint and accuracy of a getaway driver, navigating the sharp angles and deep slopes of her subjects with expert skill. She even talks about cicadas, those stupid insects that occupy the minds of so many writers, without the passage cloyingly clogging up an otherwise lovely page:
The talk was all of cicadas, silver-winged, glistening, the brown-liquor stench of their bodies littering the orchard, legions and legions of them, a biblical swarm blighting the land, their spirited shrilling in the hottest parts of the day.
The first two stories, “Pelagia, Holy Fool” and “Wantanya Cicilia,” are short and measured. The first, a story of a “scoundrel-saint” is lyrical and colorful—mostly greys, rusts and browns, though—and deeply influenced by what I have to imagine is extensive research into Eastern European folklore. Similarly fantastic, “Wantanya Cicilia” breaks our hearts by expounding on the friendship between Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull. The story is peppered with selections from an elementary spelling book and transcriptions from Canadian and American court documents, an expertly woven wool blanket, structured as it reads—warm and rough.
Another early success is “The Hauser Variations,” a multi-narrator take on the tale of feral child Kaspar Hauser. I found this selection to be rapturously interesting, but found myself wondering if someone who had not obsessively researched the mystery of Kaspar Hauser would feel similarly. Regardless, Pritchard’s use of Hauser and other “male voices” is successfully complex, a fitting, surreal ode to one of history’s strangest and saddest unsolved mysteries.
The long and foggy “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” slows the pace of The Odditorium to a near halt. Where we are first enthralled by mad saints and gun-smart cowgirls, Captain Brown and his disappointing crew of naughty nurses, sullen maybe-ghosts and cross-dressing curators drag us solemnly along an ambling nothing/nowhere for over 70 pages. Not even the excitement of D-Day can save “Captain Brown,” a shame, and a waste of a perfectly interesting premise.
Similarly affected and glum is the book’s final story, “The Nine-Gated City.” What I am sure is meant to be a statement about privilege and poverty is more a travelogue written by a depressed American journalist. The story’s narrator, Sidonie Recoura, throws her money around and then second-guesses her every move. Her interaction with an Indian activist and rescuer of underage sex workers seemingly breaks Recoura, sending her into a confusing spiral of self-loathing and sexual frustration. Instead of, say, writing the article on the activist she is allegedly in New Delhi to cover, she coerces a devoutly religious driver to take her through a dangerous neighborhood filled with brothels, stands up a wealthy engineer and then books the hotel’s last appointment for a massage.
It is an ill-suited end to what has been a perfectly fine collection of short stories. I set down the book repulsed by Recoura, wishing it had ended with the whimsical “The Odditorium,” a piece on the book’s namesake without any of the fetid laments that litter “The Nine-Gated City.” There is no question that Pritchard’s collection is of strong and beautiful stuff, but The Odditorium begins with an electric momentum that Pritchard fails to sustain throughout.