Memorial by Bryan Washington

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Michael and Benson are two young men in Houston Texas and are struggling still to understand their relationship.  Are they a couple?  Should they even be together?  Mike and Ben don’t know the answers to these questions but before they can work them out, their world is turned upside down.  Mike – a Japanese-American – is told by his mother that his father is dying.  Eiju is still living in Osaka where he owns a small bar.  Mike’s mother – Mitsuko – has arrived in Houston to visit Mike but he decides to go to Osaka to be with his father in his last few weeks.  This leaves Mitsuko alone with Ben who has his own problems to deal with including his being HIV positive and an African-American.

This disruption forms the heart of memorial around which is structured an exploration of relationships – both familial and sexual – and friendships.  The book is in three parts entitled in turn – Benson, Mike, and Benson.  Each part is written in the first person which allows for a very personal and intimate view of their relationship from the perspective of each, and, at the same time, a view of their relationships with parents.

The dialogue between Ben and Mike – albeit without quotation marks and sometimes fragmentary – captures the inconsequential conversation between two people who are familiar with each other and with each other’s likely responses.  But at the same time, nothing is advanced and nothing is resolved:

I am asking a question, said Mike.  That’s all.

Just say it.  Don’t be a little bitch.

Benson, I am literally only asking what you think.

I think you should just come out and say what you’re trying to say, I said. 

This again, said Mike.

Yes, I said.  Again and again and again.  [21]

When Mike arrives in Osaka, the novel turns to the trajectory of the relationship Mike is attempting to rekindle with his father.  From the outset, the reader observes – almost as if the reader is present in the room – the fractious relationship between father and son.  Gradually, though, over the weeks they spend together, a détente is reached and there is at least an implicit recognition of the father: son bond between them.  Again, the dialogue between Mike and Eiju and with the other characters who inhabit Eiju’s seedy bar in an Osaka backstreet is at once familiar and directionless and without resolution.

Meanwhile back in Houston, Ben is coming to terms with his unexpected – and perhaps unwanted – houseguest Mitsuko.  But here there is some positivity.  Although initially neither is comfortable with the other, over time something approaching love is reached and when Mitsuko returns to Osaka, she leans over to Ben as if to whisper to him ‘and instead of words, what I get is a kiss’ [303].

The subtext of the novel is the disclosure of being gay to one’s parents.  Benson in particular – although he was ‘out’ for some years – continued to feel that his parents struggled with his gayness.  But the reality is often different from our fears and as Benson’s father says to him ‘You know what.  I never cared who you fucked.  I know you think I do.  But I don’t’. [79]

The structure of the novel – its fragmentary paragraphing, its inclusion of photos taken by Mike in Osaka, its intimate and personal dialogue – almost suggests that it is a memoir of a relationship which struggled to survive but one where there was at some deeper level a real connection, some love which could not be openly expressed or acknowledged.  The definition of the word ‘memorial’ is something which is intended to keep a memory alive.  Is there a connection?  Perhaps.

Memorial is Bryan Washington’s first novel.  His collection of short stories Lot was published in 2019 and was selected as one of the top-ten books of the year by the New York Times.  He has written for the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Paris Review and Boston Review.

Memorial

[2020]

by Bryan Washington

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 1 8389 5132 0

$29.99; 303pp

Scroll to Top