Bryan Washington's "Memorial" is a Wonderfully Unconventional Rom-Com

Dotun Akintoye
·2 mins read
Photo credit: Jing Li
Photo credit: Jing Li

From Oprah Magazine

The rooms in Bryan Washington’s debut novel, Memorial, are almost always small. This is partly because, as he did in his acclaimed story collection, Lot, Washington writes mainly about working-class people. Their spaces are compact, their walls thin, every door shut to consummate a futile desire—intimacy doubles as a formal tool and material fact.

Ben and Mike are a couple whose partnership is disintegrating. Mike is unfaithful; Ben is forlorn, inward. Each is at war with his own history and his parents’. Thrust into their domestic strife is Mitsuko, who hasn’t seen her son, Mike, in years. She arrives in Houston just in time to watch him flee to Japan to tend to his dying, estranged father, leaving her in the cramped apartment he shares with Ben.

Ben learns much from Mitsuko, even if her early communications with him come in quips, disapproving looks, and gnomic aphorisms. “A story is an heirloom,” she tells him when he asks about Mike’s childhood. “You don’t ask for heirlooms. They’re just given to you.”

At the tender heart of the book are families—natal and improvised, lost and recuperated—and the rituals that bind them. Someone is always cooking, and the kitchen scenes become little devotionals, charged with questions of whom the food is being prepared with and for, who is willing to eat it, and whom you’re willing to teach the cooking to. Mike recalls a boyhood incident of his mother trying to flip a pancake, only to spill it onto the roach-infested floor of their motel room. Wordlessly, his father strides in, “peels it off the ground, swallows it whole.”

Washington layers these intimacies scene by scene, memory by memory, until they culminate with Ben sitting outdoors at a restaurant with his old lover, new lover Omar, and Omar’s little brother, who is in Ben’s after-school program. Omar reclines from his half-eaten burger to take it all in and says, awestruck, “I mean look at us.... Isn’t this amazing? How we ended up here?”

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