In the last couple of weeks, among the books I’ve been reading have been two that combine remarkable risk-taking in subject matter with deep, rich research and gorgeous structures: Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, which I’ve been rereading as part of my winter teaching, and my friend Melissa Pritchard’s spectacular and original new collection of stories, The Odditorium.
My Name is Red and The Odditorium each rely on a wide collection of voices. The novel is the account of love, murder, and the passionate conflict between traditional Islamic and invading Frankish/Venetian views of what art is and is for (and what is sacrilege deserving of murder). Pamuk uses a rotating first person in the novel, including the voice of one character both in his regular aspect and as his murderer-self, along with more than a dozen other characters, including some of the paintings, a dog, a tree, a gold coin, etc.
And there’s a collage of voices and narrative styles in the stories in The Odditorium. Every story has a different voice, and sometimes a dozen viewpoints and voices, switching narrative modes or tenses, collage within collage, sometimes with two or three completely unexpected and amazing endings. These voices come from or describe a whole gallery of characters: Pelagia the Holy Fool; Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull; an 18th century Italian trio of body collector, anatomist, and museum director; a WW II army captain suddenly in charge of the disastrously decayed Royal Victoria Military Hospital; a wild-child/Lost Prince of Baden and everyone who preys on him or – very rarely – tries to help him; two daughters of an elderly father in a story that both references and recreates Poe; Ripley’s fact-checker; and an American journalist in India caught between her passion for luxury and her principles.
The only other time I’ve taught My Name is Red, I wrote a bit about it (Gold Leaf: A.S. Byatt, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, The Arabian Nights, and the tyranny of “fast-paced” fiction), but I never came close to capturing it and won’t be able to here. Like many a great mystery, the book begins with a corpse, although, in this case, the corpse speaks directly to the reader, with Erdağ M. Göknar translating from Turkish to English:
“I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below. As I fell, my head, which he’d smashed with a stone, broke apart: my face, my forehead and cheeks, were crushed; my bones shattered, and my mouth filled with blood.
“For nearly four days I have been missing: My wife and children must be searching for me; my daughter, spent from crying, must be staring fretfully at the courtyard gate. Yes, I know they’re all at the window, hoping for my return.”
How happy it makes me, as a reader, that the corpse is talking, and in the peevish, sad, self-involved tones, and with the graphic imagery, that a brand-new corpse undoubtedly would use (he’s not, for example, worried about how his wife and children will survive but just imagining them and their yearning for him and his return). As a reader, I know immediately that I’m in a world where anything can happen, but that it will be somehow truthful, emotionally believable, full of meaning.
The writing in The Odditorium, too, has this quality of the truthful fantastic, and a breakneck, all-out authority to the prose. The first story in the book begins with a quote from I Corinthians “…we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools, for Christ’s sake.” Then it goes right into “Part the First: Spin, Beat, Spin”:
“Listen, wicked children! When une jeune slut-fille dirties her own halo, simple folk cast stones, and it takes the baroque and obstinate solemnity of God to bring them to their knees before a creature of such dire humility. Pelagia, born during the pre-revolutionary era of Tsar Alexander I, was a scoundrel-saint, a staretz who flipped a convent full of pent-up, quarrelsome women on its head and put up with having her vile, unwashed feet kissed by a failing empire of wonder-struck pilgrims.”
I love these two books in that drinking-water-in-the-desert way that a writer feels for the fiction that most directly offers us what we particularly need from a story. Inventiveness, in both these books, and a passionate interest in history. Altruism and devotion to life, set against cruelty and self-interest. A fascination with death, the body, and the predicaments of the helpless. Investigations of our fascinations with love and money. Neither writer holds anything back or makes any compromises: they do what they need to, and it’s a delight to read, in part because it’s genuinely a new thing, not quite like anything anyone else has ever done. Each of the books uses its brilliant language and inventive structures to tell the story of the group, and, more than that, of the entire societies and world views that create the circumstances the characters confront. And these books are definitely not – is it clear from these passages? – tidy or well-behaved.