“You shouldn't make a home out of other people. People change. And then you’re stuck in whatever your idea of home was.”
Mike and Benson—a Japanese American chef and a Black daycare teacher, respectively—have reached a point of impasse in their relationship, questioning if love is enough to keep them together. Before they find answers, news of Mike’s estranged father dying draws him to Osaka. Meanwhile, Benson is left with Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, when she arrives for a visit in Houston, just as his own father looks to re-enter his life. As the two men try to cut through their tangled familial weeds, they also work toward understanding themselves, wondering, “Why does something always have to be wrong?”
Memorial: A Novel. By Bryan Washington. Riverhead. 2020. Hardcover.
How did I get the book?
This book popped up in my Book of the Month selections last November, along with This Time Next Year. I couldn’t decide, so I ended up getting the big box as an early holiday present to myself, one that took a few months to get around to enjoying in full. Good things are worth the wait, right?
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What did I think?
“We can’t have the most fucked-up situation here, but still. You have to wonder,” Benson ponders at the airport, picking up Mitsuko and dropping off Mike. This question of family dysfunctionality circles each man’s brain. For Benson, it arrives in memories of growing up with parents that never fully approved of his gayness nor invested in the family generally. It makes Benson envious of his co-worker who with her husband and child “look like…the closest thing to a family that any of us gets,” as well as of the way Mitsuko is comfortable with Mike’s gayness, “or at least not entirely uncomfortable…less disagreeable…than [his] own parents, probably.” It therefore confuses Benson when Mike makes the decision to spend time with his absentee father, Eiju, instead of entertaining Mitsuko, but for Mike, the bad history “won’t matter when he’s dead,” even if his father’s first words to him in sixteen years when he arrives are, “What the fuck?” Although Mike never confronts Eiju about many things—such as why he’s friendlier to his bar patrons than his own son—there’s still something about being with him in Japan that feels uniquely like being home, despite not being able to fit well into his father’s circle. “I was one of them, but I wasn't, and I never would be, and that's just how it was,” he says. This distance, though, takes nothing away from the pain of how quickly Eiju’s death comes, of how Mike finds himself in the bar breathing in his scent, trying not to exhale so he can hold him in his body.
Tangential to the familial issues is Benson and Mike’s crumbling relationship. “It's like we're in some fucked-up rom-com,” Benson says of their drifting, of knowing how they looked and how they didn’t. “It's like we're both fucked-up rom-com villains.” He finds himself again watching other couples and wondering how they find ease in sharing a life together, how to balance the knowledge that “there is a finite number of people who will ever be interested in you” with feeling like he’s reached the point with one of those people where “it's all just reaction. You've done everything there is to do.” It leads him to remembering when he felt so strongly about Mike that he would run across the beach buck-naked and counting the number of times they’ve said I love you, realizing he wouldn’t need all of his fingers to do so. Mike has similar thoughts. “Whenever we touched, it was just a passing thing,” he admits. “Like an idea you know you've had and then you lose it before the fucking thing comes to fruition.” Some days he wishes Benson would just pack up and leave, dissolve out of his life altogether. “It wasn't like I didn't know what was happening, or that I wanted us to be over, but it just felt like gravity,” he adds, “like I was slowly sinking into something that would eventually happen anyway and I didn't know how to stop it or turn it around or what.”
The commonality for both problems is the men’s inability to say anything. “There are plenty of things we should be talking about, but here we are,” Benson says of him and Mike, “talking about none of them.” He feels the same way with his father. “It was just a feeling in the air, whenever we interacted, like a pothole in the road. Something we didn't have to acknowledge every time, all the time. Because that shit was implicit.” Mike does no better with Eiju, asking him what’s wrong and having him reply “nothing” before he begins to sob, “like something has opened that he hasn't intended.” Constantly, all of the men in the novel seem to insist there’s nothing to talk about, letting the issues linger like gigantic elephants. But, “what conversations do you have when you feel like there's nothing you want to say?” Mike poses. Benson agrees. “A non-decision is a choice in itself.” They certainly can’t speak to each other, instead “fucking, hastily, half-clothed, on the counter, because [they] just didn't have the words.” “It didn't tell him anything about how I was doing or how I'd been. It wasn't like there was any information being disclosed. But it was a way of speaking, more or less,” Mike explains. “Despite everything, I don't feel anything.” It’s hard to believe that in all of this silence, though, there aren’t also pangs of regret. In trying to execute clean breaks, these characters also create more cracks inside themselves. Will they miss having had the opportunities to speak once they are entirely gone? After all, doesn’t possibility always hurt a little worse than reality?
🌟 4/5 — Good
Washington crafts two voices in his parallel first-person narratives, both of which work, though I found Benson’s to be a bit stronger, a man who can be “half listening, half charging [his] phone” one minute and delivering an insight like, “No one gets to choose what steadies them” the next. My favorite of his jaded thoughts is, “Okay is good. All right is good. Most people don't get more than that. That's a myth,” to which Mike retorts, “I don’t think it has to be.” Often the strongest moments from these voices are in their shortest sentences: a bit of dialogue when Benson’s co-worker asks, “How often do you get to learn that lesson, that sometimes you just lose?”; Mike reflecting on Eiju’s death by admitting, “The big moments are never big when they're actually fucking happening”; Benson reckoning with, “Sometimes, you forget how people are.” This combination of insight and wrestling with not always being in control, ironically, comes from a writer who seems to have a lot of control, to know exactly what the fuck is going on.
Part of this shows in his ability to use space, mostly when writing from the perspective of Benson. Some sections are composed of only single sentences, such as the haunting introduction to Benson and Mike’s relationship: “We've been fine. Thank you for asking.” Others use black and white, iPhone photos to articulate this struggle of communication between parties in a way that, ironically, words cannot, leaving “digital memories” that uniquely sting. “There's the thing that happens, and then there's the shit that happens around it,” Benson explains. Mike adds, “They're as important as the actual event...the moment passes. That reframes everything. If enough time's gone by, you aren't even the same person anymore. The event becomes history.” Washington finds a way to use both the space and voice to show this to us, how when things start to go wrong for the characters, it seems to go all at once, that life is really just made out of the memories that stick around, and that sometimes, if we let stuff just be, it all really can be simple, if only for a moment.
Beyond the book.
Before Memorial was a thing, Washington’s short story collection, Lot, was one of Obama’s favorite books (Washington found out about this while at a Boba shop when his phone started blowing up). Considering this novel was birthed out of a short story, it’s probably worth considering that collection, too. If you want to re-live his successful 2020 virtual book tour in the meantime, might I suggest his conversation with New Yorker staff writer and theatre critic Vinson Cunningham at the New York Public Library from last December.
See you again soon!