The Reality and Raw Humanity of Relationships in “Memorial”

Imagine two young gay men of different races, each of whom has a dysfunctional father and the kind of mother you keep at a careful distance. Add the economic precariousness of underemployment, and alternate the settings between a gentrifying Houston neighborhood and a gritty section of Osaka, Japan. Put all of these ingredients in the hands of a gifted writer, and you would expect nothing less than a fiery page-turner. Indeed, Bryan Washington’s Memorial is the kind of novel you can’t put down, but for none of those reasons. It succeeds because of its raw humanity and how it captures what it means to care about someone.

Memorial is about the relationship between two men, Benson (“Ben”), a middle-class African American who works at a daycare center, and Mike, a chef, who was born in Japan but came to the United States as a child. Four years into their troubled union, each is having significant doubts about their future together. Early in the story, Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, arrives from Japan for a visit. Mike immediately leaves her alone with Ben in their apartment to return to Osaka to care for his dying father, Eiju. Ben and Mitsuko develop a cordial but strained coexistence. At the same time, Mike struggles with reuniting with a father who abandoned his family decades before but now needs him to run his bar and tend to his failing health. During their separation, Ben and Mike each meet someone else. Both men hesitate, intellectually ready to end a relationship that isn’t working, but emotionally not quite ready to give up.

Ben and Mike are both scarred by broken family situations. Ben’s mother left his father after she could no longer put up with his addictions, while Mitsuko tired of Eiju’s joblessness and irresponsibility. Ben and Mike carry those insecurities into their tense, sometimes violent relationship. “After the black eye, we stopped putting our hands on each other,” Ben reveals. Their arguments often lead to sex, “prolonged, frantic. Biting and clawing and crying. Squeezing each other until we were breathless.” Sex becomes the way they relate to each other. Once they are separated, their attractions to other men appear to be fueled not by a desire to start fresh but rather by another excuse to push each other further away.

While the two seem like opposites in a doomed relationship, there is a subtle and often touching dependency on each other. At one point in the story, Mike recalls Ben explaining the meaning of “context” to him. “There’s the thing that happens, and then there’s the shit that happens around it. They’re as important as the actual event. But the event is still the thing when it happens. It’s its own moment.” Ben’s and Mike’s relationship feels like its own moment in time, but it cannot exist independent of the context in their lives, the failings of their parents, the wishes of others. It is that context that in part melds them, though they do not seem to acknowledge it. They see the flaws of each other as a reason to end their relationship, but their relationship is about more than themselves.

Washington structures the narrative in a way that reflects the personalities of his protagonists. The first half of the novel is told by Ben in a tidy series of thirty-two short chapters, alternating between past and present, a series of somewhat random recollections and unresolved questions. We leave Ben’s version of events with a sense of distrust. In contrast, Mike’s narration is a single 130-page free-flowing self-contained chapter. Although messy, it seems honest and reflective, pouring out the emotion that Ben seems blind to and building connections that Ben fails to make. What emerges is a version of Mike that Ben did not create in the first part of the novel. Here we sense the problem. It isn’t that the mechanics of their relationship aren’t working. They do not understand each other.

Like Washington’s debut story collection, Lot, the principal setting of Memorial is Houston. In Lot, Washington masterfully shaped an identity of place by capturing the sounds and smells of the setting, artistry he continues in Memorial. “Whole swathes of Houston look like chunks of other countries,” he writes. “There are potholes beside gourmet bakeries beside taquerías beside noodle bars, copied and pasted onto a graying landscape.” Springtime in Houston is “scalding sidewalks and sun-drunk lovebugs . . . dead grass and midday thunderstorms.” The setting mirrors the limbo of Ben’s and Mike’s relationship. “It isn’t the beginning or the end of anything, just a prolonged in-between through dead-end traffic on I-45.” Most of the action takes place in the Third Ward, a predominantly Black neighborhood where Ben, though African-American, feels uneasy, not about himself, but about how Mike seems to fit right in. Ben can’t take the risks that Mike is capable of.

Washington’s use of supporting characters is also impressive. The acerbic but perceptive Mitsuko adds tension by asking questions Ben dare not ask himself. The colorful regulars at Eiju’s sleazy bar are a bit like a Greek chorus, frank about Mike’s textbook-sounding Japanese and critical of how he pretends to be his father’s nephew. Especially well-done is how Ben’s and Mike’s would-be lovers are both sexually ambiguous, creating a delicate tension. Will they or won’t they?, we’re left wondering. The prolonged uncertainty lends a sense of vulnerability to the story, that no matter what Ben and Mike think they want, they are not always in control.

There are parts of Memorial that feel stretched, even implausible. Would someone leave their mother with a lover she’s never met before, right after she arrives for a visit? Could someone who hasn’t lived in a country since he was a child go back and take over a business? Yet, it is worth suspending disbelief to enjoy the things that work so well in this novel.

Memorial reminds us that relationships, whether satisfying or doomed, are rarely about just two people. We bring into them our past selves, with the damage already done. We need people who aren’t perfect and learn to live with their imperfections. As Mike realizes, “we take our memories wherever we go, and what’s left are the ones that stick around, and that’s how we make a life.”

By Bryan Washington
Riverhead Books
Published October 27, 2020
Paperback October 26, 2021