by Bryan Washington
Riverhead Books, 2020
Reviewed by Miranda Ramírez
Memorial is a three-part character-driven narrative written by Bryan Washington in which he nails the nuances and callousness of modern romance. He unravels the abstractions of grief, love, and family while simultaneously and matter-of-factly portraying the realities f queer romance, homophobia, racism, and poverty.
From the start, emotional tensions are high on the page—it feels as if you have just bumbled into a private moment: a one-sided argument between lovers whose love may, sadly, have gone stale. It is an eavesdropping sensation heightened by the fact that the novel’s three sections read as the confessions of two characters; one remains in Houston, Texas, throughout the novel, and one who quickly departs to the other side of the planet, Osaka, Japan. This dual narration is told via the perspectives of the two gay men: In Houston, Ben, short for Benson, is a Black HIV-positive daycare employee, and his lover, Mike, is a Japanese immigrant and chef at a local Mexican restaurant. Both men are estranged from their families and struggle with issues of abandonment and betrayal.
The story begins when Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Houston for an extended stay at Mike and Ben’s apartment. His departure creates a stressful enough situation for both the couple and Mitsuko, but Washington dials up the tension by sharing the cause of Mike’s sudden trip: his estranged father is dying from terminal cancer and is not long for this world. With disregard to Ben, Mitsuko, his job, his whole life in Houston, Mike impulsively departs to take care of his father, ignoring his visiting mother. His father, Eiju, had abandoned Mitsuko and Mike when Mike was still a child. Naturally, Mike’s decision to fly to Osaka the day after his mother’s arrival creates a bewildering sensation to both the characters and the reader. He leaves Ben and Mitsuko alone in the awkward wake of his sudden departure.
These early days, in what Houstonians would recognize as a distinctly Third-Ward apartment, a predominately low-income and BIPOC community, truly allow Washington’s talents to shine. He employs vivid, specific, and authentic setting descriptions alongside cynical and intriguing dialogue, the coupling of which successfully evokes a contemporary reflection of urban poverty, the reality of gentrification, and the sense of solidarity amongst BIPOC residents. The prose is compelling and impactful as it shows an honest depiction of race relations in a refreshingly contemporary language and form. For example, take the moment in which Benson’s father asks after his relationship with Mike in a round-about way. The conversation begins during a meal of instant noodles shared to the backdrop of The Fast & Furious.
He teaches you that?
I ask him what he means. My father pantomimes with the chopsticks.
You never ate like that in my house, he says.
I want to say that I had, and he was too drunk to see it.
Or that it wasn’t his house.
I taste the words, and I swallow them.
–in this brief scene, Washington concisely displays the times, characterizes both men, and develops their relationship to one another—not unlike his lover’s father, Benson’s father is also estranged from his family due to alcoholism. Yet, he still feels secure in his authority over Benson, offering judgment on Benson’s lifestyle—a lifestyle for which Benson lost his home.
Moments like this are littered throughout the text. These scenes ache with a sense of temporary realism. That sensation is amplified by the telling signs of the here and now: gratuitous cursing, selfies, the muted emotions of conversations held over text, and the long-desired normalization of queer romance and interracial romance—this can be seen by Washington’s choice to not make their homosexuality a focal point of the narrative. This isn’t a coming out story or a tale whose lynchpin is based on acceptance by society at large—it’s about the ups and downs of a relationship and how it can impact every avenue of life—the fact that they’re gay isn’t essential to the plot. Instead, Washington asks us to consider the pragmatism of monogamy in the current world climate while giving the reader a thorough exploration of romantic and filial love in lyrical prose that earnestly invokes an emotional reaction.
While this story isn’t about overcoming the traumas of homophobia or fighting oppression, it never shies from challenging topics, but queerness nor any other marginalized status, nor the prejudices those communities experience, are the core of this novel. Those experiences are handled in a matter-of-fact tonality that assumes that all marginalized bodies have to deal with these things. It’s accepted as a fact in the reality of this prose. Of course, they impact the multiracial couple, their friends, and their families, but they are not keystones of the telling—just as straightness as an identity isn’t the focus of the cliched romances of earlier generations. . Identities, disabilities, and prejudices are not denied or ignored in the novel—they are seen, enacted, celebrated, and condemned, much like they are in reality. The normalization of BIPOC and LGBTQIA experiences found in this novel is a greatly desired shift away from the stacks of trauma stories we see written about and for these communities.
Memorial is a subtle and insightfully voyeuristic exploration into the realities of love and the grief it can cause—and not just over those that have died, but those relationships we’ve lost and the way we grieve that kind of loss. It queries what makes a family a family and how much blood matters in the end—it poses the question, how much should and can we give of ourselves to another.