Melissa Pritchard, the author of the short story collection entitled “Odditorium” is not unknown. Her earlier short fiction collections were New York Times Notable Book and Editor’s Choice selections and she has received a variety of literary awards. Unfortunately, no award could do justice to this collection. The breadth of her scholarship and imagination, and her accomplished prose left me dazzled.
After reading the first story “Pelagia, Holy Fool” I was as dizzy as the whirling urchin or angel that beguile and unnerve her 19th Russian village of Arzamas. Dervish in ecstasy on behalf of Christ, or merely insane, society bruises and buries the unwashed, both saints and sinners alike. This is a Russian folktale, a Grimm fairy tale, a fable with three morals. Curiously, “Odditorium” is published by Bellevue Literary Press, which is based in New York City. I originally thought Ms. Pritchard and her publisher were winding her readers up because it is the literary press of NYU School of Medicine, and Bellevue Hospital has its share of patients who are insane. In fact, Bellevue Literary Press is a well-regarded indie press.
Ms. Pritchard acknowledges Erika Goldman and Leslie Hodgkins editors at Bellevue Press, as well as noting the original editors at the literary journals where these stories were first published. I think more authors should do this. Given Ms. Pritchard’s imagination, I suspect some stories would not be easy to edit, and I would love to compare the original drafts with the final product. “Pelagia” first appeared in IMAGE and was edited by Gregory Wolfe.
“Watanya Cicilia” began disappointingly for me. It seemed disjointed: two distinct plots running on separate tracks. The first is about an abused child in Ohio in the 1870s. The second is about Sitting Bull. It comes together because the little girl is a sharpshooter who finds a home in the Wild West Show.
A great con artist knows how to mesh some facts with fiction. Jim Crace, the author of this year’s Booker short-listed “Harvest” writes historical fiction, without defining the period. It is a fictionalized account that seems to be an accurate period piece. “Ecorché Flayed Man” is a character and period study of the late 18th Century Italian anatomist Clemente Susini; the father of modern toxicology and first Director of the Museo di Storia Naturale di Firenze (the Museum of Zoology and Natural History), Felice Fontana; and the collector of cadavers, Il Cinzio. The museum is next to the Pitti Palace and is known as La Specola. It houses the anatomical waxes of Susini and Gaetano Zumbo which were used for medical training during the Renaissance. As in “Peligia”, this imaginary tale has alternative fairy tale, mythic, and miraculous endings. “Ecorche” first appeared in A Public Space, where the editor is Brigid Hughes, the former editor of The Paris Review.
Having left 19th Century Russia, 19th Century America, and 18th Century Florence, Ms. Pritchard’s next stop is England on the verge of D-Day. Specifically, the locale is the behemouth Royal Victoria Military Hospital near Netley Abbey on the Southeast coast. Our guide is a regimented American Captain, who has been charged with command of the hospital in preparation for the D-Day landing. A man ordered by task and promotion, through him Ms. Pritchard surveys history, geography and relationships lost. It is narrated, but, unlike the prior stories, is emotionally attached to the well-developed character. You have to marvel at Ms. Pritchard’s command of place and time. Hers are stories that educate you. This story first appeared in Ecotone and was edited by Ben George.
“The Hauser Variations (As Sung by Male Voices, A Capriccio)” is similar in theme to “Pelagia, Holy Fool.” The score is a variation on the life of a feral child, in Nuremberg Germany, during the first half of the 19th Century. It is a cruel story of psychology, abuse, and culture. Ms. Pritchard’s story “Odditorium” tells the story of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, from the vantage point of the fact-checker. The unique and the peculiar are marveled at. Here it is the freak, the abandoned child, whose difference is a tormented mirror. “The Hauser Variations” first appeared in Conjunctions and the editor was Bradford Morrow.
“Patricide” by comparison is a light dark tale of two failed and tarnished sisters who meet to discuss their dying father’s Will. It is the description of a certain type of genteel Southern hotel setting that stands-out. It oozes old Virginia. The story first appeared in Boulevard and Richard Burgin was the editor.
The “Nine-Gated City” has you traveling again. The locale is modern-day Delhi. An attractive middle-aged female U.S. journalist has come to spec to interview an Indian advocate about sex-trafficking in Southeast Asia. This is a story about loneliness, pampered liberalism, false saviors, and the economic divide that is India. The story is transporting. For about three-quarters I thought this was a near-perfect story. For me the ending was disappointing. I would have preferred it to stay open-ended. The story first appeared in AGNI 70 and was edited by Sven Birkerts.
It is rare that I would think about reading a collection of short stories twice. This is one collection that I would. I suspect that many of the esteemed editors of these stories have helped Ms. Pritchard develop her craft. I have never understood when critics claim that authors are “fearless”. What is the worst that could happen? However, if there is risk in being imaginative and stepping outside of certain norms for publishers, then Ms. Pritchard and all of her editors are risk-takers and her readers are beneficiaries.