Memorial: Book Review

Bryan Washington
Atlantic Books

Bryan Washington’s debut collection of short stories Lot won the 2020 Dylan Thomas Prize and was hailed by Barrack Obama as one of his favourite books. So the author’s first novel Memorial was awaited with great anticipation in 2021.
Washington calls his novel ‘a gay slacker dramedy.’ It recounts the love affair between two twenty something gay men from Houston Texas: Benson, a black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese-American cook. Mike’s estranged father Eiju moved to Osaka and opened a bar there. And Mike flies out to him when he hears he is dying from cancer. Ironically, this happens at the same time that Mike’s sharp-tongued mother Mitsuko decides to visit. So Mike leaves her with Benson to share a flat and develop an awkward relationship in the ensuing months. But strangely, a compatible and even caring rapport develops between them.
The story is told alternately by Benson and Mike, but the tone of voice appears similar at times between the two narrators as the narrative flips back and forth in a somewhat disjointed fashion from Osaka to Houston with frequent flashbacks to childhoods and early relationships.
One wonders initially if the reader will really care about these characters with their dysfunctional and promiscuous lives, and where white kids are presented as a sinister or remote species who sometime ‘invade the block’. But as the novel progresses they grow on one in their clipped, uncommunicative ways and non-sequiturs.
The book is written in a modern, pared-down style. There are minimal descriptions, no inverted commas for speech, random question marks and paragraphs sometimes as short as one line. The book is full of street patois and text messages and emojis and current abbreviations and acronyms, almost instructing the reader to take note that this stuff is on the button, real and raw.
Although descriptions are brief, some of them pack a punch with lots of implied information. For example, on the break-up of the relationship of Mike’s parents, his father didn’t leave the house for a while:
He mostly sat on the porch
He started saying please.
Having incompetent parents can lead to humour as it falls to Benson’s sister Lydia to teach him the ways of the world, growing up, as she tries unknowingly to instruct her unwilling brother on how to kiss a girl.
Washington is very accurate with location, rendering Mike’s stay in Osaka quite visual. His father’s bar for example ‘sat a few minutes from his busted walk-up in Tennoji, beside a bakery and a tattered bookstore and another walk-up and two parking lots and like sixteen love hotels’.
Cooking plays a major role in the set scenes where there is a huge concentration of dialogue and showing Mike as particularly fond of preparing exotic dishes such as ‘udon cooked in a hot pot, beside abura-age and kamaboko…’
The sex scenes, while frequent, are not graphic and are presented almost distantly and in summary. The sex between the two often took place after an argument and would consist of ‘biting and clawing and crying. Squeezing each other until we were breathless. Afterward we lay on the mattress’.
The character of Eiju is wonderfully drawn. He is a tough old bird, uncompromising and refusing to go maudlin despite his slow disintegration. But his son remembers his kindnesses and gentleness towards him as a child: touching his hair, carrying him on his shoulders on a trip to San Francisco.
The ending of the novel is left loose with Mitsuko returning to Japan and the possibility of Mike following her later. And, as for Benson, we have to surmise whether he will join them or not.

Published in the Irish Examiner, 3/4/2021


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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