The literary landscape is jammed with short stories. MFA programs teach them, and authors hone their skills writing them, while publishers generally steer clear of them because, they say, nobody buys them. It’s a glut: There are so many of them, stories that are not-so-bad or pretty-good. Few authors rise above to be seen as truly excellent; at her best, Melissa Pritchard belongs in that number.
What sets her apart is the voice — voices, really — she uses to tell her stories. In the new collection The Odditorium the stories are told with thick, evocative language that speaks of viscera and flowers and poetry and violence, from times distant and more recent, ringing individual and unique. An Italian man dies due to “the brute, swampy errors of his life.” An imprisoned boy is “devoid of the slightest qualities, thingish, possessed of no lusts no raptures no aversions no joys, not even the puerility of riddles, no solace of hymns, no scalded teat of nursery rhyme.” In another story, the observer looks skeptically at “Fame, that disco ball of collective Yearning.”
That last is from the title story, about the longtime, long-suffering fact checker for Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Norbert Pearlroth. The story is brilliantly conceived: It is structured, wittily, like the old newspaper column, complete with questions and answers at the end and uses the overheated, exclamation point-riddled language to telling its entirely unremarkable tale. Pearlroth is hardly there; he imagines himself invisible, an appendage, jotting down notes. The quiet chronicler in the margin parallels Pritchard herself, telling wild tales of near-saints, medical outliers, and the imprisoned, feral boy.
Each story employs a form of its own. “The Hauser Variations (As Sung by Male Voices, A Capriccio)” tells, episodically and in different styles (with musical-type instruction), the tale of Kaspar Hauser, a German “wild boy” of the early 19th century who may or may not have been a fraud. In “Watanya Ciclia”, the stories of famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley and Native American leader Sitting Bull alternate, framed, with no small irony, by passages from an 1857 child’s spelling book.
Often, bits of written ephemera like this — poems, songs, newspaper articles — serve as juxtaposition against the stories, or their intent. In “Ecorche: Flayed Man”, formal, dry texts are contrasted against the way a 19th-century anatomist sees a cadaver: “the glittering casket of jewels concealed within, the gem-sheen of organs, the ivory of bone, ruby of blood and muscle, lapis lazuli of arteries and veins, the gold nettings of lymph, sealed inside envelopes of blankness, plainness. Each body a reliquary, packed with soft-cut bijouterie.” That is a tremendous image, and as that story shifts points of view, it remains equally close up, brimming with intense language.
As the story comes to its surprising, Edgar Allan Poe-like conclusion, it’s clear that even when Pritchard attends to the details of form and style, she doesn’t forget to match it with content. These short stories are exactly the right size and shape for what they contain.
The shorter ones, that is. The unfortunate thing about this collection is that it contains a 79-page story that veers from all this. “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Hospital” is the only story included that hasn’t already appeared in a literary magazine, and it’s no surprise. A baggy, gothic-inflected character study of a Navy surgeon who manages a hospital during D-day, it falls into needless repetition, as if it didn’t have enough material to carry it through; more importantly, it fails to convincingly portray the man at its center.
In fact, stretched out in longer stories, Pritchard’s characters start to look thin. In “The Nine-Gated City”, a wealthy middle-aged journalist goes to Delhi, India, and is forced to face the gap between her luxury hotel accommodations and the desperation she sees on the street. While the tension of how a person of privilege can move through and live with extreme poverty might be a fascinating read, Pritchard’s protagonist never emerges from stereotype — she shows less complexity than the competitors on CBS’ round-the-world reality TV series, The Amazing Race.
It’s too bad that a few characters in this collection fall short. Pritchard’s best stories are ambitious, lush and even thrilling. She takes risks, different risks in different stories. Can she write a segment in the form of a comedic Shakespearean dialogue? She can. Does a story evolve into epistolary form? It does. Will she be able to build a story around the format of an old newspaper feature? She will. Can she do it all with poetic, vivid prose? With one hand tied behind her back.
Is Melissa Pritchard someone whose short fiction should be well known? Do you even have to ask?