Memorial by Bryan Washington

“It’s like we’re in some fucked-up rom-com, I said. It’s like we’re both fucked-up rom-com villains.”

Maybe it’s my fault for ‘hyping’ myself too much but I found Memorial to be a wee bit disappointing. First of all, the lack of quotations marks. So many authors are using this technique that it now seems passé. And what does this stylistic choice accomplish? If we really wanted to write as ‘realistically’ as possible we wouldn’t bother with punctation marks or with noting ‘he/she said’.

Set in Houston, Memorial follows a Benson and Mike who live together and are sort of dating. Mike, who is Japanese American, works as a chef at Mexican restaurant, while Benson, who is black, is a dare care teacher. The everyday challenges of cohabitation and their different attitudes towards monogamy, money, and work, result in a rather rocky relationship. Arguments give away to tense silences, and the two begins to question whether being together still make sense.
When Mike announces that he will be leaving America to reconnect with his dying father—who owns a bar in Tokyo—Benson isn’t happy. Worst still, Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, who has just flown to Houston, will be staying with Benson in their apartment.
Both Benson and Mike’s narratives are interspersed with short snippets from their past. We gain a sort of impression of their family life, as well as reading of their previous sexual partners and of the early days in their relationship.
During this time apart Benson grows close to another man, and reconnects with his own father, an alcoholic who isn’t too enthused by his son’s sexual orientation. Mitsuko begins to teach him how to cook, and while the two don’t get on particularly well, they get used to each other.
Mike instead struggles to get along with his father. He begins to work alongside him in his bar, and while he doesn’t seem particularly keen on the job or the clientele, he sort of adjusts to his new environment.
I didn’t particularly care for Benson nor Mike. They share the same kind of nondescript personality (they are the type of people who shrug a lot). Their voices were almost interchangeable, which didn’t really benefit their characterisation. The sex scenes were either predictably awkward, perfunctory, or frantic. I guess Washington wanted to depict realistic sex, but he almost goes overboard, so that his sex scenes verge on the ridiculous (I mean: “grunting like otters against a dingy, dented stall”). To be fair, however, there was once instance that made me chuckle: “We fucked. It sucked.”
The dialogue was okay, sort of mumblecore-esque. The secondary characters felt kind of flat. They both have separated parents, with ‘broken/brusque’ fathers and ‘sardonic/direct’ mothers. Mike’s whole section with his father felt very schmalzy (not that I don’t care for dying-father/son stories in which the two reconnect, I loved Medicine Walk).
Sadly, I found this underwhelming. This is the kind of novel that tries too hard to be a ‘real’ and ‘unfiltered’ story about modern love…but I don’t know. The characters spend a lot of the time watching dots on their screen, which, yeah, it’s kind of relatable but it soon gets repetitive. The story does incorporate discussions about race, class, and sexuality, but I can’t say that these issues were explored with any particular depth.
Just because Washington style didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that I thought that Memorial was a bad novel. If you enjoyed Exciting Times you might actually find this to be a highly satisfying read.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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