Book Review: Memorial by Bryan Washington

Lovina J. Paje
October 21, 2022

Genre: Literary Fiction 

Content warnings: racism (incl. racial slurs), homophobia (incl. homophobic slurs), divorce, infidelity, sex, substance use, depictions of domestic violence, classism, discrimination

Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: contemplating the reason for human connection and how we can cultivate meaningful relationships

The following review will contain spoilers for Memorial

. . . how often do you get to learn that lesson? That sometimes you just lose?

Memorial by Bryan Washington follows Benson (or Ben) and Mike (or Michael), an interracial gay couple living in Houston, Texas. The two men love each other, but they’re not quite sure why they’re still together. They’re about to break up, and when Mike finally figures out this is the time to tell Benson it’s over, he discovers his estranged father is dying. 

So, Mike leaves for Osaka to say goodbye to a man that left him decades ago. All the while, this happens as Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, comes to Texas to pay him a visit. With Mike gone and Mitsuko stuck in Houston, she ends up living with Benson for the meantime.

The first section, written from Benson’s perspective, details the aftermath of Mike leaving. His long-term boyfriend, who he was pretty sure he was going to break up with anyway, has left out of the blue. Benson doesn’t exactly understand why Mike even bothers. He knows his partner hasn’t had the best relationship with his father, but he makes no effort to stop him. He leaves and that’s that. Now, Benson has to deal with Mitsuko, who he’s never met, and it makes for an interesting dynamic.

In our first session of The Writer’s Block, we spoke a little about characterisation and how characters can be compelled by the plot, or the plot can motivate character action. It was agreed that characters need some form of agency. They need to respond to the things happening around them, otherwise, where’s the story? 

Photo of a paperback copy of 'Memorial'.

In Memorial, Benson is a character compelled by plot. Truthfully, I don’t think he has much agency over his actions, which sounds a little bland, but hear me out. 

Day by day, Benson continues to float in and out, watching as things happen to the people around him. However, he rarely takes initiative to do things himself. When his sister asks him to visit his father, a recovering addict, he’ll do it, but he wasn’t going to do that on his own. Relationship aside, there’s a man he meets at work that he definitely has a crush on. When they go on an almost-date, Benson neglects to mention he’s already dating someone. He goes to a wedding, not exactly because he wants to – he was just invited. And he learns to cook because Mitsuko makes him (truthfully, if I was stuck with my son’s boyfriend, I’d probably force him to cook, too). At face value, it all sounds quite boring. 

It appears that, up until this point in Benson’s life, nothing was really happening. Now that there is a Mike-shaped hole in his life, he has enough space to think about what went wrong between the two of them. And he has enough time to go out and do things. While there isn’t any ‘real’ plot happening, the book mimics life in its rawest form. It’s a classic example of time continuing to move forward, no matter what happens. Benson just happens to be the character in Memorial who is forced to deal with the aftermath.

But I guess that’s the thing: we take our memories wherever we go, and what’s left are the ones that stick around, and that’s how we make a life.

Again, taking it back to our first session of The Writer’s Block, we also spoke a bit about how plot can motivate character action. I think this is true for Mike. Where Benson is waiting for things to happen to him, Mike doesn’t exactly have the luxury to wait. He isn’t quite sure when his father is going to die, he only knows it’s going to be soon and that is the reason why he visits. Sure, the man wasn’t particularly kind to him. However, this is something that Memorial does very well, showcasing the complexities of human connection and that not everything is as clear-cut as they appear to be.  

As soon as Mike lands, he’s on his way to finding his faither, Eiju. When he does, he wastes no time in helping Eiju run his bar in Osaka. In some aspects, Mike’s perspective is just as mundane as Benson’s perspective. We accompany Mike as he goes through the motions of helping Eiju. We meet the regular patrons of the bar. We see Mike move day in and day out, watching, waiting for the moment his father’s health gets worse, and it does. 

Little by little, we learn a bit more about Mike’s childhood and upbringing. There’s how his parents met and how they moved from Japan to the US. We learn that Mike’s always been working class, but Benson doesn’t seem to understand that because his family’s always been middle-class. But both characters can’t seem to understand the struggle of each other. Where Mike is Japanese-American, Benson is Black-American, and those two groups will always have their unique experiences with the way classism and racism intersect. 

Another thing I noticed was that Mike’s perspective was written in the same format a Japanese novel would be, which is fitting, considering Mike is Japanese. There were no clear chapters, only sections separated by either page breaks or a text divider. As someone who reads quite a lot of English-translated Japanese fiction and has been studying Japanese for the past two years, I was pleasantly surprised. And I’m not sure if that would be something anyone else would easily pick up. 

Everything changes, she says. Change isn't good or bad. It’s just change.

As the content warnings display, it wasn’t exactly an easy read. It seems like anything the world could throw at a person, it gets thrown right at Benson and Mike.

Benson is a gay Black man, who comes from a middle-class family. Conversely, Mike is a gay Asian man and an immigrant, who comes from a working-class family. These characteristics alone are enough to spark a conversation about the importance of intersectionality when it comes to race, sexuality and class. However, these aspects of Ben and Mike’s lives are simply their lived reality. 

In Memorial, both Ben and Mike’s perspectives hop back and forth between the past and the present. We are confronted with the mundane (and unfortunate) experience of dealing with microaggressions and moving through life despite all of this, because it’s the only thing we can do. 

... 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 one for you. Or only for a season or two. But that doesn’t diminish the love. It changes forms.

As readers, I’m sure we’re well acquainted with the desire to recapture what it felt like to read a book for the first time. Whatever your favourite book may be, that First Time Reader Experience is magical, and it doesn’t match up to every other time you reread the book. 

I’ve realised, as time goes by, new experiences can pave the way for new analyses. It can deepen our understanding of a book we’d read before, or it can mean something else entirely different the next time we pick it up. I’ve realised this is exactly how I feel about Memorial. While yes, admittedly, nothing earth-shattering or ground-breaking seems to be happening on the pages, it perfectly mimics what it means to be human. 

It explores the complexities of human relationships and how nothing is really clearly black-and-white when it comes to our parents, siblings, friends and lovers.

For all of these reasons, Memorial is 4 stars.

Illustration of four stars drawn onto a torn slip of paper.

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