Published in: Cornell Book Review, Spring 2012
Melissa Pritchard’s The Odditorium is an unconventional short story collection. The eight unrelated short stories that comprise the work jump between widely varied eras and locations, including settings as different as the legendary American West of Annie Oakley, a gargantuan hospital for soldiers in wartime England , and an account of the dire poverty plaguing modern-day India. Indeed, the premise of the novel’s narrative structure seems to be established at the very end of the first short story:
“Objects, while appearing solid, are 99.9999 percent empty space. Chaos directs us to a higher order. Past and future do not exist. Dimensions are multiple and time can be traveled. These are the teachings of physics.”
The sentence, by describing the uncertainty inherent in science, generally considered to be a field that provides rational explanations for occurrences in the cosmos and among humankind, illustrates the disjuncture between the assumed stability of the world and its actual uncertainty, namely its fluidity of time and space. The rest of Pritchard’s novel demonstrates that not only the scientific dimension, but also the human dimension of lived experience, is not stable, ordered, nor patterned, but rather chaotic, subject to change, and difficult to interpret.
The very form of Pritchard’s novel reflects the mutability of her settings. First, the stories themselves are a dizzying mix of fiction and non-fiction. It is obvious to readers that some of the stories are based on real characters and events, such as the second short story, which deals with the relationship between Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull, and the second-to-last short story, which involves the well-known figure Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not. However, many of these stories, though they involve real historical figures, center on plots and circumstances for which there seems to be little to no actual evidence. Other stories in the collection seem to have no historical counterparts whatsoever in either their plot or characters, further blurring the distinction between truth and fiction—for instance, the first story reads like a more-or-less historical account of the life of one Saint Pelagia. However, research reveals that there were actual several Saint Pelagias throughout the course of history, none of whom have stories that quite match the story of the one in Pritchard’s work. Incidents like this suggest that it is futile to try to disentangle truth from fiction. Ultimately, the function of this effect is to emphasize that many times what purports to be reality is actually a fiction. For instance, various accounts of any given incident invariably begin to differ to the extent that it becomes impossible to separate the truth from the fiction, to know what objectively happened as opposed to what people subjectively perceived. Even memory is unreliable in this manner. This realization casts history itself into a dubious light, and emphasizes the idea of uncertainty as a prevalent force in the world.
Pritchard introduces a perplexing array of forms in her novel. Although the majority of her stories are in traditional prose style, they are also speckled with letters, chants, quotations from seemingly arbitrary and archaic books, and songs in not only English but German and French. Additionally, each story is organized by different systems of headings and sub-headings, which seem intended to disorient readers. For instance, “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” is divided into numbered chapters without titles, while the short story “The Hauser Variations” is divided into titled sub-chapters, each one told from a different narrative perspective. Furthermore, in some stories, the narrator is omniscient or third-person limited, while others possess a first-person narrative structure. There are yet more stories which are told in combinations of the above.
Besides this array of literary styles, narrative perspectives, settings in space and time, and fact and fiction, the tone of Pritchard’s narrative voices in each of her stories differs drastically. Some of the short stories, such as “Watanya Cicilia,” about Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull, are narrated matter-of-factly, as though to replicate the sensible, no-frills character of Annie herself. Many of the other stories contain extremely original twists of language that lead to both vivid description and expressive storytelling. Predominant in Pritchard’s writing style is a knack for packing a dense variety of ideas into one or two descriptive lines which, because of the innovative connections between images they evoke, remain imprinted on readers’ minds. For instance, in the first short story, “Pelagia, Holy Fool,” the mentally-ill but beautiful main character Pelagia is wedded to a lustful man who cares little for her ailments or character, but only for her physical attributes. During their wedding, Pelagia continually pours tea over the flower designs in her dress, but nobody seems to mind this odd habit. Rather, “Sergei…trundled his bride away in a collapsing wooden cart, steering…with one hand and grabbing handfuls of tea-wetted flesh with the other, as was his right under God.” The passage dehumanizes Pelagia by relegating her to nothing but “tea-wetted flesh,” a mindless, motionless object there for him to handle as he pleases. The narrative demonstrates the crudeness of Sergei, who cannot even wait until they return home to begin his advances. Furthermore, reducing Pelagia to a passive, inanimate role emphasizes her complete helplessness. The narrator’s dry addition of “…as was his right under God” highlights that this kind of mistreatment is entirely endorsed by the values of their society. That Pelagia “scissors her legs out” for Sergei at night “after all the other chores were done” reinforces her oppressed, pitiful state in their marriage. The verb “scissor” suggests that the act described is violent and unpleasant, forced, an image emphasized by its designation as a final chore “after all the other chores were done.” Other innovative images include young Annie Oakley’s description of her guardians, who “…wore somber, drab clothes like leafless trees, dark elms, even in late summer, the tired air outside whirring with the metallic din of cicadas.” The comparison of these guardians to dark, solemn trees in the midst of a summer populated by “tired air” and the monotonous, “metallic din of the cicadas” highlights the fatigue and glumness of her original guardians.
Amidst such solemnity, however, the narrative contains moments of subtle humor. For instance, in the central story of the novel, “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital,” the titular character complains that he is “slender, too, not lanky, but of such a sinuous, elastic height that movements others didn’t think twice about became for him a series of kinetic navigations requiring a gradual inversion or folding up into himself.” It is comical to think of a man as serious as Captain Brown having to practically use the same force of concentration when making his own body movements as he does when running the hospital.
Although Pritchard’s writing style is complex, occasionally humorous, and sometimes beautiful, portions of her writing sometimes seem little more than unremarkable sentimentalism or plain bad writing. Occasionally her descriptions, characterized by lengthy, very complex sentences, become ridiculous in their scale and convolution. At these times, her writing seems labored and unnatural, slowing down the flow of the story and drawing attention away from the actual content of the novel itself. The central story in the book, which is the longest, is also unfortunately the least well-written of all of the short stories. The forced and labored writing that slightly mars small sections of some of the other stories in the collection flourishes fully in “Captain Brown and the Royal Victorial Military Hospital.” Much of the actual dialogue in the short story seems forced. Additionally, whereas Pritchard’s prose in the rest of the novel is vivid and original, in “Captain Brown,” the narrative tells far more than it actually shows, making it the least interesting story of the entire novel in terms of its prose. Even parts of the story itself are tacky and unrealistic. For instance, Captain Brown has been asked to interrogate a German SS officer, an intimidating task he has never done before. To begin the interview session, he recites in German the first stanza of a poem by Goethe, after which the German author curtly and contemptuously recites for him the second. The idea of two officers, one American and one German, sitting across from one another in an interrogation room, contemptuous of one another and yet able to recite aloud German poetry as a means of communication, is quaint, but ultimately so unrealistic and sentimental as to be cringe-worthy.
However, it is possible to see Pritchard’s ingenuity in this story as well. Despite these issues, Captain Brown still manages to resonate with readers, who pity him for his unwavering commitment to duty, for which he sacrifices ever feeling true passion in his life. Because Pritchard’s writing is so flawless in other parts of the book, it is tempting to think that the obviously inferior quality of the writing in “Captain Brown” is actually done intentionally, its goal to literally represent the Captain’s emotional limitations and inability to express himself adequately, thus emphatically reinforcing the self-made barrier between him and others. Indeed, “Captain Brown” remains a touching portrait of a man who is a kind of hero, but nevertheless is lonely and regretful his entire life because he has no idea how to interact with other human beings in any manner other than an authoritative one. If readers do give Pritchard the benefit of the doubt and assume that the inferior writing style in “Captain Brown” was done on purpose, then Pritchard is all the more impressive for her ability to craft a moving story using inadequately-written prose.
Furthermore, it is in this central story that readers first begin to glimpse a kind of order to the chaotic novel, an overarching theme that connects all of the stories together into one whole. Captain Brown reflects on the fact that his family’s ancestry is German and that, had they not immigrated to the United States, he would be on the other side of the war. Furthermore, he notes that one of his soldiers is “more Aryan in appearance than most of the Germans he was guarding.” Both of these observations highlight the absurdity of war in general and the underlying arbitrariness of most alliances and coalitions. These and other complexities of life and the cosmos surrounding it cause Captain Brown to reflect that “it astonished him how much remained unlearned, ungraspable, how much of earthly life remained deeply, stubbornly, mysterious” (114). The density of adverbs and adjectives here emphasizes the scope of the unknown. This, ultimately, is the central theme of the novel—the entire human dimension is like one great “odditorium”, full of characters and circumstances so strange that the human mind barely begins to grasp at their significance or logical purpose. For this reason it is appropriate that World War II serves as the backdrop to “Captain Brown,” since the unprecedented scale and scope of its inhumanity and cruelty caused the conventional, safe view of the world to shatter, leaving in its wake a world much less certain and much more bizarre.
The novel is one long proof of the age-old adage “truth is stranger than fiction,” but it is more than that—it is a criticism of society’s propensity to label and judge a reality that is so complex and, at times, bizarre that it can never be explained away with simplistic judgments and rationalizations. In the short story “Watanya Cicilia,” Annie Oakley writes, “Dearest sister, I am discovering that it is truly a mistake—it may even be a moral wrong, in fact—to judge. Truth is too complex, too contradictory, too mercurial, too one-sided, though it is human nature to prefer the reassurance and ease of firm judgment. Judgment helps us to satisfy our less savory actions” (45). Her observation holds for the entire novel, and resonates as a strong criticism of the hypocritical nature of Ripley’s showcase, and by extension, human behavior. People line up to gawk at extreme oddities as a way of escaping the complexities and arbitrariness of their own lives, in the same way that they mock those people and objects that seem abnormal or bizarre. However, they seem not to recognize that the very definition of “normal” is subject to change according to the vogue of the times, and that in scoffing at that which society deems “abnormal” or “grotesque,” they disregard the bizarre and grotesque elements of their own lives. Pritchard’s novel showcases to us that the distinction between the absurdities within the glass cases at Ripley’s odditoriums and that of the world outside of them peeking in is blurry, to say the least.