In Memorial, Bryan Washington’s debut novel, we meet Benson and Mike. Put extremely simply, this is a story about a young couple who meet, fall in love in stages, and then come to a crossroads which is never fully resolved before the narrative comes to an end. But Memorial is so much more than that. Memorial is an investigation of love and lust, a tale of grief and understanding, and a complex look at how family history informs and interrupts our day-to-day lives and can reset us to a place where we don’t want to be. It’s a study of place, of what home really means, and of the huge significance that people we experience for only a short amount of time can really have on us. It’s an exploration of heritage, race, and sexuality. It is, in other words, a masterpiece that has a little bit of everything.
But let’s rewind a little bit. Anyone who read Bryan Washington’s 2018 collection of short stories, Lot, will already have an idea of the vitality and warmth with which he brings his characters and settings to life. That continues here in spades. As we experience the first third of the novel through the eyes of Benson, we watch as Mike disappears to Japan for several months on the very same day that his mum Mitsuko comes to stay in the house that Benson and Mike share. It’s an extraordinary situation. Benson has never met Mike’s mum before but is now expected, at the drop of a hat, to live with her and soothe her hurt at her son’s sudden departure.
Expectations at this point are that we are going to slip into some kind of odd-couple story – Benson and Mitsuko finding a way to live together and love each other while Mike bubbles on in the background. And there is some of that in the story. The two new housemates do bond to a degree, as Mitsuko teaches Benson to cook, but mostly their differing needs bounce against each other while Mitsuko becomes a kind of witness to all the other complications in Benson’s life. A screwed-up family, a job that brings its own weird stresses, and a sense that his relationship is not what he wants it to be – a feeling that there might be someone else out there for him.
Throughout that first section, we know that Mike has left for Japan because his dad is dying. We understand and sympathise with that because of the skill with which Washington has drawn his characters, but most readers will also be firmly on the side of Benson and Mitsuko. But as a second section takes us to Mike and Japan, that becomes complicated. We learn of his relationship with his family, his need to connect to his father, and his empathy and care in the early stages of his time with Benson. This is what Washington excels at. He makes every character so whole, so present on the page, that you can’t help but connect with them. And then the human condition becomes the very centre of his story.
Any Cop?: I caught onto Bryan Washington pretty late after a recommendation from a friend. Reading Lot just a few weeks ago, I was excited in a way that I have been by very few writers. He just has it. Sometimes, though, that short story skill doesn’t extend to the longer format. Here, it does. By keeping his chapters short, his characters active and alive, and his subject matter wide-ranging but focused at the same time, Washington brings the energy and purpose of the short story to the novel form. It’s a remarkable achievement.