Literary wunderkind Bryan Washington made waves last year with his debut short-story collection, “Lot,” and he returns Oct. 27 to gift readers with a love story so multifaceted and emotionally nuanced as to feel transformative.
In Washington’s first novel, “Memorial,” Mike, a Japanese American chef working in a Mexican restaurant, and Benson, a Black day care teacher, are the couple at the center of the plot’s concentric circles. They live together in a gentrifying neighborhood in Washington’s native Houston, settled into their routines after a few years of loving each other. But while they are comfortable in some ways, their communication falters in others, leaving gaps in their understanding of each other that they often fill with sex.
The book opens with the arrival of Mike’s mother Mitsuko, visiting from Japan. Just before she arrives, Mike finds out that his estranged father, Eiju, is dying. Mike decides to leave Mitsuko and Benson in Houston to go to Osaka to reconnect with, say goodbye to, or somehow reckon with his father. The story unfolds from there, told in Benson and Mike’s alternating perspectives.
“Memorial” strikes an extraordinary balance between plot and character development that results in pitch-perfect pacing. Washington’s skill with dialogue and humor carries the narrative surprisingly far, in addition to some stunning imagery and plotting. The balance extends to the amount of context Washington includes for each character’s life. And the settings, the cities of Houston and Osaka, breathe on their own; they are places Washington clearly knows well.
And “Memorial” goes beyond the beautiful and painfully melancholy love between Mike and Benson. It is a love story about parents and children, colleagues and friends; it is one of circumstance, grief and forgiveness. As Mike and Eiju find their own imperfect way to love each other, so does Benson and his family, so do Benson and Mitsuko, and so do the temporary lovers that Mike and Benson find while they are apart.
“There’s a point when you’re with someone, and it’s all just reaction. You’ve done everything there is to do,” Washington writes. “But once in a blue moon, they’ll feel like a stranger, like a visitor in your hands.”
The fault lines between simultaneously knowing too much and not enough about one’s loves are palpable in these relationships, and results in delicious narrative drama and a deep exploration of home. “Loving a person means letting them change when they need to,” Washington writes. “And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn’t make them any less of a home. Just maybe not one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It just changes forms.”
Even as the characters in the novel traverse the ethereal aspects of love and home, Washington skillfully moors the story in a concrete world of objects, food, buildings, cars. This creates a sense of safety for the reader even as emotionality sometimes begins to spiral.
And it’s worth noting that “Memorial” also centers a poz (HIV-positive) protagonist, something all too rare in literature. Benson’s status is both important and free of imposed stigma or stereotype.
“I really didn’t care about his status,” Mike narrates. “I didn’t not care, but it just wasn’t a thing that I could’ve possibly minded. This was just another thing about him.” Given the epidemic level of HIV in the U.S., especially among Black queer men, it is disappointing that such characters continue to be erased in fiction.
But while representation is a perennial conversation and need in literature, it flattens this novel to speak of it too much in these terms. “Memorial” is a melodic sojourn and an earnest expression of humanity. As the world continues to struggle against isolation and we find ways to hold onto our own hearts in the face of COVID-19 and vast injustice, “Memorial” feels like even more of a balm.
“Memorial” by Bryan Washington, Riverhead Books, 320 pp., $27