Monday, March 18, 2013

30 Days of the Flannery O'Connor Award: Day 14

Gina Oschner on Melissa Pritchard's SPIRIT SEIZURES

"Short But Never Shallow"

In a genre frequently maligned for its brevity, a suggestion which implies slightness, narrowness, myopia, or worse, a lack of depth, Melissa Pritchard dances circles around naysayers, proving just how much light, weight, and power a good short story can possess. Intelligent, articulate, agile, and intuitive, the stories of Pritchard’s Spirit Seizures exhibit the qualities master short story writer Italo Calvino insists all good stories must: lightness, precision and exactitude. Pritchard demonstrates quick, deft movements within character and outside of character that keep her stories jostling between mystery and irony. In “Companions” young, lame-hipped Lora Lee believes she has been impregnated by a good Christian boy whose attempt to heal her is little more than clumsy petting. Unhealed but believing that she’s carrying a child “about the size of a ten-cent jawbreaker” Lora Lee embarks on a bus ride home to her domineering and eccentric mother. On the bus a disfigured man with a small dog befriends her and by way of advice says, “Let me tell you something. A man has got to have a companion. A man has got to have one living thing that the thinks of beyond his own self. Otherwise he’s no darn better off than dead.”

The need for “that one living thing” and the notion that without it one might as well be dead burns within the heart and sensibilities of Deidre, a middle-aged woman noticing the slow betrayals of her own body and the shift in power and affection, the complicities and many compromises a mother and wife makes (often at her own expense) to please her teenaged daughter and husband. Complicity coils tight in “A Dying Man” when the narrator, who is in fact dying, discovers that his wife and mistress forge over his deathbed a friendship stronger than any friendship he’d ever experienced.

Being no better off than the dead haunts drab forty-two year old Elsa, truculent companion to her mother during a various excursions through Rome. Elsa finds the mandatory sights (the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Fountain of Trevi) noteworthy, dutifully compressing them into postcards of cheer for family and friends back home. But it’s the unscripted spontaneous excursion sans mother to the crypts that truly impresses: “Skeletons of forty thousand Capuchin monks . . . dismantled and reset into primitive mosaics. . .umbles and whorls of thigh bones, mushroom-cap skulls . . .blackened clumps of human heart.” In a revelatory moment, Elsa asks a nearby monk “Is there more?” The monk silently points to a solemn reminder printed on a sign:
Once we were like you
You will be
Like us one day
An answer to the question she didn’t know until that moment she needed to ask, Elsa returns to her mother outwardly unchanged, inwardly a-jangle. The jostle of the body’s husk, the rattle of the human shell allows Elsa and many characters like her to contemplate a question few dare to ask: Is there something more than this? Unexpected reversals, betrayal, and discovery catapult Pritchard’s characters into spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical instability. Lacking firm ground upon which to stand, lacking a firm sense of self in some cases, characters find themselves wobbling between possibility and change. In the title story “Spirit Seizures” the character Lurancy falls into trances during which the spirit of a dead girl sets up residence in her flesh and recalls past events and can even play mordant tunes on the piano. The point of which seems that the push and pull of our bodies and the connection between the living and dead are more tangible than perhaps her characters want to acknowledge. Lest the stories languish in object lesson, Pritchard architects her narration in series of playful, mischievous flashbacks; jump-cuts; reversals; metamorphosis and transformations; and other reminders that a story should and ought to be light, mischievous, and playful. Otherwise we will ask: Is there more? Fortunately, in Pritchard’s stories, where bizarre and ordinary meet in the most unexpected ways, there is always something more.

Gina Ochsner is the author of THE NECESSARY GRACE TO FALL (2002), the novel The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight, and the short story collection People I Wanted to Be. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review, and many other magazines. She has received the Ruth Hindman Foundation Prize, the Raymond Carver Prize, and the Chelsea Award for Short Fiction. In addition to winning the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, The Necessary Grace to Fall also won the Oregon Book Award, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award, and was an Austin Chronicle Top Ten Pick. Ochsner lives in western Oregon with her husband and children.