'Memorial' Is A Debut Novel That Feels Like The Work Of A Master
It didn't take Bryan Washington long to become a literary star. The Houston author took the book world by storm last year with his debut short story collection, Lot, a love letter (or something like it) to his hometown of Houston that received rave reviews from critics — including former President Obama, who called the book one of his favorites of the year.
Readers who fell in love with Washington's perceptive writing haven't had to wait too long for his follow-up, Memorial, a novel that's also set in Houston. Here's some good news for the writer's admirers: Memorial isn't just every bit as brilliant as its predecessor. It's somehow even better.
Washington's novel follows Benson and Mike, two young gay men living together in Houston's Third Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood that's quickly gentrified over the past few years. The college students moving in aren't entirely unwelcome, as Benson wryly notes: "The black folks who've lived here for decades let them do it, happy for the scientific fact that white kids keep the cops away."
Benson and Mike are a couple — kind of. The two fight frequently, and both seem reluctant to discuss at length what exactly their relationship is, and where it's going. Their discussions tend to lead to fights, which lead to sex, but they're otherwise frustratingly unproductive: "What conversations do you have when you feel like there's nothing you want to say?" Mike thinks.
Their relationship is forced to undergo its greatest test when Mike tells Benson that he's going to visit his dying father, Eiju, in Japan — the day after his mother, Mitsuko, is set to arrive in Houston for a long visit. Benson isn't excited about spending an indeterminate amount of time with a woman he's never met; Mitsuko is crushed that her son has chosen to skip town to visit the ex-husband whom she doesn't seem to hold in particularly high regard.
While Benson adjusts to life with Mitsuko, all the while juggling his job at a daycare and his own troubled family, Mike stays with his father in Osaka, helping Eiju run his bar, observing the tavern's regulars, and communicating with Benson via sporadic text messages. Benson makes periodic attempts to draw Mitsuko out, but they're mostly unsuccessful. At one point, Benson notes that he and Mitsuko have barely talked about Mike, she replies, "He came out of my body. He's a homosexual. He left his mother with a stranger. I've already got everything I need to know."
All the while, Benson and Mike continue to ponder what they want — what they need, although they'd never use the word — from each other. When Mike asks Benson what he wants out of the relationship, Benson becomes uncomfortable, telling Mike that he's "okay" with the way things are. "Okay is good," Benson says. "All right is good. Most people don't get more than that. That's a myth."
It's clear that he doesn't entirely believe that, and part of what makes Memorial so believable is Washington's uncanny ability to draw the reader's attention to what's not said as much as what is. The dialogue in the novel is pitch-perfect, but it's in the spaces between the talking — the awkward silences, the questions left unanswered — that the characters reveal themselves.
It's a difficult tactic to pull off, but Washington does it masterfully, and it especially pays off with regard to Benson, who's taciturn and just on the edge of emotionally unavailable. "He was stupefyingly shy," Mike thinks, remembering his early days with Benson. "He was the ... worst to figure out. But I wanted to figure him out." By the end of the novel, the reader doesn't quite have Benson entirely figured out, but knows enough to care, knows enough to feel something like kinship.
Washington also has a remarkable eye for family dynamics. The scenes featuring Mike and Eiju are alternatingly funny and heartbreaking — Eiju is occasionally charming despite being a bit of a jerk, and Mike's attempts to form some kind of connection with him ring very true to life. Similarly, Benson's reluctant conversations with his father — a spiraling alcoholic who kicked Benson out of his house after learning the young man was HIV-positive — are tough to read, but perfectly rendered.
Washington is an enormously gifted author, and his writing — spare, unadorned, but beautiful — reads like the work of a writer who's been working for decades, not one who has yet to turn 30. Just like Lot, Memorial is a quietly stunning book, a masterpiece that asks us to reflect on what we owe to the people who enter our lives. There's no easy answer, of course, but Mike, at one point, comes close: "You just have to stick around. That's enough. It has to be."