Holding It All Together

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been teaching Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s essay “The Beautiful City of Tirzah” for several years, thanks to its inclusion in the superb anthology of creative nonfiction called (not so creatively) The Touchstone Anthology of Creative Nonfiction. In that book, Fletcher’s author bio identifies him as working on a collection of essays called Man in a Box. I’ve been thinking about that working title for the year or so that I’ve known of his first book, the Descanso for my Father that I’ve been writing about over the last two weeks. Since “Tirzah” is included in this book, and since it is his only book thus far, and since one of the essays in Descanso happens to be called “Man in a Box,” I have a hunch that Descanso once carried a different working title. And with that little factoid, here goes.

“Man in a Box” is physically in the middle of Descanso. It is, by far, the longest essay included (37 pages; “Tirzah” is the second-longest at 14). And it serves as the central hinge of the collection. Everything before “Man in a Box” writes toward the essay, and everything after it writes…well…after it.

On one very facile hand, I see Descanso ending its structural unity at the moment that “Man in a Box” comes to a close on page 104, or 105 if you count the photograph of, presumably, Fletcher’s mother. The essay finishes the arc of thought that animates the preceding pages. Certain moments offer echoes of previous images — an important component of effective collections — and other moments offer crucial fleshing out of the lyric material that has preceded it, even as the essay itself remains firmly lyric. Perhaps most notably, in “Man in a Box” Fletcher writes directly of the process of his search for his father. We see the stage directions, that he is traveling to different places very much to find his father, that he is actively trying to put the pieces together, that the book you hold in your hands is the result of this very search. “I assemble my father,” he writes. “Bit by bit a composite forms” (87). The sum of the long essay and the preceding shorter ones is that composite, which feels both satisfying and complete.

So the question that animates my writing in this space fixates on the notion of a “collection” of essays, and more pointedly, on how much a collection needs to hold together as a book and how much latitude it has to just be, y’know, a collection of things. In hearing essayist Brian Doyle read and speak last spring, I was struck by how he described his own process of book making as, more or less, collecting together thirty of the short pieces he’d recently written. Now, I think Doyle practiced careful self-deprecation in that moment, as his own collections show the hand of an assembler making a thing of each collection. But, at the same time, there’s truth within his description. Doyle’s books are closer to loose collections than fully cohesive units. Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with that model of essay collection; however, the most satisfying collections, whether fiction of nonfiction, are those that do create a unified sum within their parts. While there isn’t necessarily a common arc, there is an accumulation of fragments that lead to a clearer mosaic, the same sort of “composite” formed when Fletcher pieces together his father.

Thus, if I apply the requirement of cohesiveness to Fletcher’s collection, and if I wish to claim that the unifying arc of that cohesion of fragments is the building of the father composite, Descanso doesn’t quite work as a single thing. Rather, I would have to argue that the essays appearing after “Man in a Box” read as essays that are delivered without the steam and tension that drove those earlier in the collection. The man has been assembled, and the rest is a lengthy denouement with only oblique relationship to the rest. And if I look at the subject matters of these final six essays, I find the sudden and vibrant appearance of Fletcher’s wife, and his son, and a lot more about his mother, and a lot less about his father.

Yet, even as I have felt that twinge of disconnection in reading Descanso, I am not willing to diminish the book as being the sort of collection that just kind of brings stuff together. Nor am I willing to criticize it as being 100 or so pages of a book, filled in with B sides. (Though I understand that I’m throwing those ideas out here, which gives them a touch of credibility, even as I will, now, refute the ideas I have introduced). The problem with this view — my problem, really — is tied up with the old title. I can’t help but think about this book as being Man in a Box. If it were, well, then the criticisms would hold. But Fletcher has titled it Descanso for my Father, and he has defined “descanso” usefully and artfully in the prologue in a way that helps me understand the bookishness of this collection.

Yes, Descanso is about the assembly of the father, but it is mostly about the assembly of the author. Indeed, the first half of the book must preoccupy itself with the project that, no doubt, inspired the initial writing. Fletcher wanted to fill in the gaps of the man he finds in the pictures and clippings inside the box kept in the closet that Tirzah led him to (that sentence read to the tune of, “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea”). And he did that. And in doing it, he closed the gaps enough in the primary search to recognize the need for a more fundamental one, that of the self. Throughout the essays in the book, Fletcher keeps running up against his own image, reflected in glass, in wood, in eyes. He keeps looking for his father and finding himself, but not quite recognizing it.

Ultimately, then, “Man in the Box” is the essay that lets him lay aside the initial search and venture toward the new one. He writes after that essay about those elements that have shaped him. Or, perhaps, he writes about these elements as a means to discover his own shape. Back to the prologue, where he writes: “In middle age, a father, few things frighten me more than the notion of being forgotten or remaining a mystery to my son and daughter. It is my hope with this collection to write a descanso for the father I never knew, each essay an offering on the path to find him, to find myself” (6). The end of that quote makes me feel a bit dumb — Fletcher told me exactly what he was up to. Yet the force of the image of the father is so powerful to me as a reader, and to him as a writer, that it consumes the first half of the book. I find it remarkable that the construction of the collection demonstrates in its very construction the nature of that power. As readers, we are led into the totality of his search in ways similar to Fletcher’s own obsession. Only in satisfying that first tension can we move forward. And, yeah, it’s a bit disappointing to lose that tension…but only because it’s something we’ve lived with for so long, for 100 pages. For Fletcher, the assembly is something he lived with for 40-some years, and I can imagine that the “solution” of the father puzzle felt like both relief and let down. Now what?

The rest of the book. Which begins the essai toward a Harrison Candelaria Fletcher who can turn the lens of discovery in new directions. As readers, we follow that arc with him.

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