The Odditorium: Stories by Melissa Pritchard – A Review

The Odditorium: Stories
Melissa Pritchard
Bellevue Literary Press, 2011

The Odditorium is just that: a collection of strange and odd curiosities that don’t really have any purpose being together except to titillate. An item could be strange, ugly, beautiful, but that oddness is the key to its existence within the collection. But is oddness in of itself interesting? Perhaps, but what is probably more interesting is the juxtaposition with the expected that leads one not only to see the odd as a curiosity but reflection on what one takes for granted. Oddities, like freak shows, though, can also become little more than facile rushes to exploitation. The shocking becomes little more than that its momentary surprise that fades into the background. While it’s true that Pritchard’s stories don’t fall into the trap of  creating the exploitively strange, the stories in The Odditorium are all more interested in their strangeness than finding something deeper or more compelling within them. There are certainly more than enough stories about crappy marriages, and that isn’t what I’m asking for here, but stories that do something with her obvious power as a writer. With each story it was obvious she had fallen in love with her characters, all historical figures, and she wanted to get closer to them, understand who they were. Unfortunately, she mistakes detail for depth and the search becomes and irritating failure.

Take the story Watanya Cicilia which describes the relationship between Sitting Bull and Annie Oakley and how they bonded, becoming father and daughter. In some ways she does describe it, but in others it is so lifeless that it doesn’t seem if there is a story there. It isn’t that she doesn’t flesh out the characters, or give us a new reality, it’s that the story is caught up in its own fragmentary nature, as if the broken pieces of narrative about two 19th figures mimics disjointedness of history. Yet it fails even that task. What it shows is how good Pritchard is at creating moments that overflow with sensory detail. Strip that away and the characters are nothing.  Characters aren’t necessary the only measure of a successful story, but since she focuses on them so much it is fair to ask if they serve more purpose than to be a tapestry for her descriptive skills. After finishing Watanya Cicilia, one could be forgiven for thinking, I used to care about Annie Oakley now she just bores. It is a shame because her early evocations of Annie’s life had some potential.

Again in Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, perhaps the most interesting of the stories (really a novella), one gets the sense that she falls into the trap of the historical novelist who cannot let go of historical details because they are so fascinating. Unfortunately, it makes for tiresome reading. The story starts interestingly enough, following an American Captain as he prepares a military hospital for the coming D-Day invasions. He is a dedicated officer and she gives the reader an insight into the tedium of his life, one that he enjoys. In some ways she breaks from her interest in the strange and goes towards the boring. Nothing of note really happens and one could see the story as just the minute examination of a man, but there are also hints at a ghost and at an infatuation with a young French woman. It is a baggy piece and the subtle look at lonely man’s life is there, but she overlays it with hints of the fantastic that what might have been her strongest work, is derailed with needless diversions. She cannot resist the strange and the odd. She even puts a museum of the odd in the hospital so the reader can see how odd everything really is.

At the beginning of each story she leads the reader to think there is going to be something that is going to realize her full skills. The Hauser Variations is a perfect example. It is structured as a song which describes incidents in the life of Casper Hauser as told by different characters. It is a playful mix of her descriptive skills and a floating narrative. It is more an impressionistic piece, given to throwing snatches of song or the occasional bit of religious nonsense into the piece. The effect lends itself well to describing a mysterious man who had spent his early years away from all human contact. Yet time and again one gets the impression she is just too in love with the sound of her own voice. In a book of these kind of stories it is too much and it shows the games and trickery as little more than that.

Variation 2
With poetic sobriety.

I had twe pley horse, and such redd ribbons where I horse decorate did.
-Fragment from Kasper Hauser’s First Autobiography,
November 1828, Nuremberg

Dank grub, cabbage vermin, white, hairless, altrical slug. It scarcely flourished in its cradle plot its solitary necropolis, neither living nor dead, its budded tongue a fleshy club, its legs fwumped and futile.

It’s at times like these that I’m reminded of an essay by Lionel Trilling. He was writing about the flaws in the work of William Dean Howells. The one flaw that has always stuck with me is that Howells was not into the strange and that we are in the age of the strange. While I’m not asking for the reincarnation of the Howells or naturalism for that matter, strange for the sake of strange some times can just lead to a dead end. She has the language down, now go beyond that to something that really touches.

A Complaint

Pritchard has nothing to do with the blurbs on her book, but are some of these people really serious? Some of this stuff is egregious.

In this thrillingly protean collection of stories, Melissa Pritchard has done something profound. By imagining her way into historical moments and illuminating their shadows, she amplifies the music of history so we hear beautifully strange, wondrous notes we never knew were there. These stories resound with a fierce yet playful intelligence and a rare, magnificent generosity.

–Maud Casey

Please answer me this: how are stories generous? (More words per story) I really need to stop looking at these things. They are so silly especially when you completely disagree.