December 2011

Erin Walter

fiction

The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard

Midway through "Patricide," one of the more accessible yet mysterious stories in The Odditorium, author Melissa Pritchard provides a frank comparison that flatters neither of her tale's two main characters. "Uncompromising in other respects, my sister's taste in books tended toward the mundane, not even best sellers, but books two, three, even four notches down. As always, her tastes and mine, even in this, were widely opposed. In matters of reading, she thought me elitist. I considered her lowbrow..."

As I struggled to come to terms with Pritchard's new collection of genre-bending fiction, I must admit I rejoiced in the above passage. Aha! I just about cheered aloud. It all makes sense now. I am the lowbrow sister, and the author is the elitist.

That would be an oversimplification, of course. But for a reader out of practice with historical fiction or otherwise nonmainstream prose, Pritchard's book can be, at first, terribly vexing. How much is true? What's with all the subheadings? Must I go to Wikipedia after every story? What is this about? Thankfully, after the charm of "Watanya Ciclia," a story about the familial friendship between an aging Sitting Bull and a young Annie Oakley, I began to relax and treasure the pleasures of a literary challenge.

Pritchard's eight-story collection combines elements of western tale tales, gothic horror, historical fiction and even snippets from old newspapers, spelling books, government records, and the Bible. The author takes her inspiration from Edgar Allan Poe to Ripley's Believe It or Not to the story of a famous feral child. Light reading, The Odditorium is not. But perhaps that's for the best. In an era when much communication is constricted to a few fleeting, alphanumeric characters on a screen, Pritchard has crafted an almost unlimited world that is rich with characters and deep in character.

The rewards for a careful expedition into The Odditorium are unforgettable moments of timeless, resonant truth: that public shame can literally shrink a person; that it can be impossible to stay abreast of political correctness; that just because an opinion is popular doesn't make it true.

Best of all are the passages of deft description, where even background characters come fully into focus in one sharp paragraph. In "Patricide," Pritchard describes a Virginia family as "church-dressed, evidently prosperous yet oddly dated, decades backward in fashion, the men verbally laboring, uneasy with the constraints of mixed conversation, the women uneasier still, nodding, idle and silent, with stiffened hair and expressionless faces, not a drop of mischief in them, perhaps they had never known what mischief was."

Pritchard's descriptive talents illuminate not just the emotional depths of her characters but humanity's physical innards as well. In "Ecorche: Flayed Man," she shares an anatomist's view of a corpse: "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 pale gold nettings of lymph, sealed inside envelopes of blankness, plainness."

I wish the order of Pritchard's collection could be rearranged slightly, to let readers ease in a bit. (Apparently nothing intimidates me like kicking off with a Corinthians quote.) But I am ultimately grateful to The Odditorium for yanking me out of my literary comfort zone.

In "Watanya Ciclia," Pritchard's fictionalized Annie Oakley opines that "truth is too complex, too contradictory, too mercurial, to be one-sided." Those words could just as easily apply to the tales of The Odditorium.

The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard
Bellevue Literary Press
ISBN: 978-1934137376
252 pages