Small things matter in "Memorial" — what’s said and what’s glossed over, a look over the dinner table, minutes spent prepping side by side in the kitchen.
"I keep saying it’s the creases of relationships," Bryan Washington explains by phone from Houston, where he grew up and where part of "Memorial" takes place. "It’s the plateaus between the capital letter moments of relationships."
"Memorial" (Riverhead/Penguin, $27) may be Washington’s debut novel, but he’s headed squarely for a moment of his own. His 2019 short-story collection "Lot" won multiple prizes and earned a place on former President Barack Obama’s list of his favorite books that year. The National Book Foundation dubbed him one of the "5 Under 35" to watch.
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Already in development for television by Emmy-winning studio A24 with Washington writing the adaptation, "Memorial" arrives on shelves Tuesday. He will appear virtually Wednesday at BookPeople in conversation with author and MacArthur fellow Jacqueline Woodson.
The book centers on Benson and Mike, a couple who live in Houston’s gentrifying Third Ward. Benson is a Black day care worker who grew up in the city. Mike is Japanese American and cooks at a coffee shop. Are they happy? Are they breaking up, after four-ish years of being together? Possibly both, but Mike’s estranged father is in the last stages of cancer, Mike’s mother is en route to Houston and Mike has decided to go to Osaka to see his dad for the first time in years. Mitsuko sees her son for just a night before she’s left to stay with Benson.
It’s tempting at first to take sides, but Washington makes sure that, as in life, there aren’t easy answers. "Everything looks different in context," he writes in "Memorial." "All of it."
"It was important to me that every character, whether they were in the primary cast or the supporting cast, had a capacity for goodness and a capacity for understanding," he said. "A big challenge was that I wanted to reach this ideal of a novel that didn't have an antagonist. What felt important to me was to really highlight those tiny moments of generosity. … I wanted to give every character space to reach towards that."
Washington excels at capturing experiences and connections. We see the wide range of different communities that populate Houston and how they overlap in the city’s robust mix of cultures. We sense Benson’s growing bond with Mitsuko, and meet the assortment of Osaka bar regulars who have become a family for Mike’s father, Eiju, in the absence of his ex-wife and son.
Fans of Washington’s food writing for the New Yorker will particularly appreciate the care with which he describes meals: "I enjoy reading about food. There’s not a lot of contemporary literary fiction where the characters eat," he said with a laugh, adding: "The intent on my end was to really kind of extrapolate the different ways folks come together and comfort each other .... the act of sharing a meal and the act of cooking a meal was another vehicle for getting that across."
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Most of all, he spotlights Benson and Mike. We see how they meet and how they navigate their relationship with parents, friends and co-workers, and with each other. Washington says he wanted to depict a love story between two queer men from marginalized communities on their own terms, instead of filtered through a heteronormative, white lens. The pair keep trying, even when it’s not clear that their relationship is solid.
"They’re trying to figure out how to be themselves but also how to be with each other," Washington said. "Even when they’re not hitting on the same cylinder, they’re constantly still trying, they're constantly making the attempt."