reflection: Memorial by Bryan Washington
"That loving a person means letting them change when they need to. And letting them go when they need to. And that doesn't make them any less of a home. Just maybe not the one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn't diminish the love. It just changes forms."
Thank you @riverheadbooks for sending me an advance review copy of this book.
Many of you have expressed disappointment for Bryan Washington’s Memorial. Here are some words that reappear in the negative reviews posted on Goodreads: “flat” “no plot” “monotonous” “disappointment” “boring.” I even saw people complain about the heavy use of profanity and Washington’s stylistic choice to not use quotation marks for dialogue.
Such critiques motivated me to read the book with a critical eye. But having now finished it, I am honestly confused at the lukewarm response as I absolutely enjoyed this book. To me, there’s a difference between a book that attempts to be exciting but fails, and an intentionally mundane book.
In my opinion, Bryan Washington’s Memorial is purposefully plotless, routine and mundane because that’s what happens when you realistically describe human life. Most people are boring and rarely have strong motivations for why they do most things – though they want to believe otherwise. I can see why the voice or pacing of the book may be annoying – the book has a John Green-esque quality to it – but it wasn’t poorly done in any way.
In Memorial, the two main characters, Benson (who is Black-American) and Mike (who is Japanese-American) are in a four-year-long monogamous relationship and are now stuck in limbo, unsure whether to continue with the relationship or go separate paths. They live together in an apartment in a gentrifying Houston neighborhood, the rent supported by Benson’s job as a daycare worker and Mike’s job as a chef at a Mexican fusion restaurant.
Benson and Mike’s relationship oscillates between having nothing to say to each other, to violent arguments, to make-up sex, to genuine moments of care. But this doesn’t seem sustainable – and both have a feeling they are headed to the end.
The relationship’s path to the end is interrupted when Mike’s dad, Eiju, living in Japan, is diagnosed with cancer. Mike calls his mother, Mitsuko, also living in Japan, and asks her to come visit Houston to get her mind off things. But last minute, as Mitsuko prepares to fly into Houston, Mike, feeling an obligation to see his father pass, books a flight to Japan. This is how Mitsuko is left alone with Benson.
Mitsuko is cold to Benson at first. When Mike and Benson pick her up at the Houston airport, Mitsuko “doesn’t even look” at Benson. At first, I was like – is this homophobia? is this racism? is this both? It’s unclear why Mitsuko isn’t warm to Benson at first. After Mike departs for Japan, Benson and Mitsuko stay out of each other’s way: “we mostly keep to ourselves. It’s probably better that way.”
However, after a while, the two develop a sort-of-friendly routine, buttressed by the cooking lessons Mitsuko gives Benson. Though she continues to maintain her distance, Mitsuko does express some care toward Benson. For example, when Benson struggles with whether he should give his alcoholic father a second chance – Mitsuko says to Benson: “It’s none of my business. But my son crossed the ocean for his,” suggesting that Benson should make the effort to rebuild with his father.
The relationship between Mitsuko and Benson is a character study. How do two very different people get along in odd circumstances? In general, I think the book effectively explored human interactions in several ways – a study of our decision to stay in long-term monogamous relationship that don’t fulfill us, a study of our decision to forgive our imperfect fathers, a study on what it means to watch a parent die, a study on how straight people react to queerness, a study on how women move on from abusive relationships when they have kids.
Maybe the dislike for this book comes from the fact that the book doesn’t tie the loose ends or provide explanations, but is merely holding up a mirror. There is no real climax to the book, nor real takeaway lesson.
In Japan, Mike meets his father, Eiju, who now owns a bar where many of the same regulars come every night. Eiju’s cancer is, at first, almost imperceptible. But overtime, especially since Eiju is refusing cancer treatment, Eiju becomes weak and is unable to manage the bar alone. This is something Mike takes over, along with Kunihiko, a young man who has been working at the bar for a long time under Eiju’s watchful eye.
Despite literally dying, Eiju is still the same verbally abusive father he was when Mike was a child. Sidenote - many of the men in this book DESPERATELY need to go to therapy or group talk session or something.
Eiju abandoned Mitsuko and Mike in Houston when Mike was still a child. During the few years he was present, he had a drinking problem and would leave the family for days at a time. When Mike attempts to confront Eiju in Japan about their history, Eiju gaslights and denies. He even suggests that Mike and his mom left him. And he doesn’t refrain from making comments about Mike’s sexuality and even locks Mike out of their apartment after a fight.
Yet, humans are not one thing. Despite his father being abusive and non-present, Mike can remember moments when Eiju was the best of best fathers, sleeping beside Mike when he was restless as a child or kissing Mike behind the ear before bed. Perhaps because Eiju also remembers these moments, he offers to pass down the bar to Mike after he dies. Now, Mike is unsure whether he should stay in Japan and take care of the bar, or go back to life with Benson in Houston.
The book ends on a cliffhanger – the reader left unsure if Benson and Mike continue their relationship or not, or whether Mike goes back to Japan.
I like that this book was subtle. A lot of books explore homophobia in a heavy way (slurs, attacks), but rarely do books explore the more microaggressive ways. Both Mike and Benson’s family have lukewarm reactions to their queerness, either poking fun at it, being uncomfortable about talking about it, or avoiding the topic directly. It was illustrative how society is still more comfortable with heterosexual relationships than queer ones.
It is interesting that Mike, during their fights, from time to time, will attack Benson for being spoiled because Benson came from a middle-class Black family while Mike grew up poor. I always think attacks on Black middle-class people from non-Black POC are misplaced anger. There’s so much to say about those scenes.
The book represented Benson being HIV positive in a really good way. We should want books that don’t overly stigmatize such a diagnosis.
There is a lot of domestic violence in this book. It is present in Mike and Ben’s relationship, but also both of their mothers were physically and verbally abused by their fathers. It disappointed me that neither Mike nor Ben were very empathetic to their mothers. Benson seems to be upset that his mother moved on and remarried, and near the end of the book, Mike asks his mother why they didn’t follow his father to Japan. I read those moments like - ?? of course your mothers don’t want to be around your fathers.
The book ends trying to convince us that Mike and Ben should be together. I feel strongly that they shouldn’t but also understanding that humans stay in relationships for various reasons. I liked the exploration of imperfect love with partners and parents. But it’ll take me awhile to figure out if I thought this book was genius or just kinda good.