Written in sparse, simmering prose, this debut novel by a Dylan Thomas Prize winner fuses race, sexuality and grief into a tale of dissolving love. Like broth on a stove, gently it bubbles, evaporates, until the flame is put out.
The narration – delivered in a cool vernacular – is split between the two men, beginning with Benson. While Mike is more expressive, when the baton passed I felt bereft, having grown attached to Benson’s inner world. “Giving both men room to speak on the situation felt like one way to arrive at a clearer sense of where their relationship was taking them, and how they end up where they do,” Washington explained in an interview in the New Yorker (where an excerpt of Memorial ran as a short story). As in the stories in Lot, race, class and identity are addressed in an unforced way.
While Memorial shares Lot’s attractively conversational style (not to mention its conspicuous indifference to “whiteboys” and “whitegirls”), Benson’s segments, in particular, threaten to drown the book in self-pity. If some companionably awkward sex scenes provide relief – as well as vital context – it also helps that Washington is too savvy a writer not to see that his theme of communication failure can be funny as well as sad... The ambling dual narrative, looping between past and present, draws tragicomic power from blunt coincidence: Mike breaks his radio silence at exactly the moment that Benson finds himself kissing another man.
Washington, 27, follows his confident debut with Memorial, one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of 2021, soon to be adapted for TV. Set between Houston and the Japanese city of Osaka, it’s a tender, wistful, often profound story about a deteriorating romance between two twentysomething men. Having lived together in Houston’s steadily gentrifying Third Ward for the past few years, Benson, a black daycare teacher, and Mike, a Japanese-American cook, are trying to work out if they have a future together — and if so what that future might look like.
What began as a novel about a couple turns into one about the communities we set up with families, friends and colleagues. And it’s a primer in the modern world for anyone who, like Mike’s dad, feels that “I just don’t know the rules. They keep changing on me.” So a novel about relationships, yes, but one that makes you think: “Well, what else is there, after all?”
What is so impressive about Washington is his restraint. He knows how to temper and balance. He does not indulge character and voice – or other pampered aspects of the literary novel – at the expense of plot. He tugs his plot forward by braiding the past with the present, home with work, Houston with Osaka. Race, sexuality, grief, trauma and class are timely subjects and Washington handles them with seriousness but not reverence. He can be funny without clowning around for approval. Characters fight physically; they hurt each other in so many ways. Yet none of it goes reported to authorities. Memorial reads like the unreported lives of people getting by without the mediation of police, social workers or therapists. In some ways, these Americans are the true undocumented people of the country.