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.