I’ve heard so many good things about Washington’s first publication, Lot, a short story collection. I have been meaning to read it for a while, but short stories are not always my thing and I just haven’t been in the mood/headspace for that. When I saw this new book come through the library to be shelved after processing it into the system (and – miracle! – there wasn’t a hold on it already), I figured I should go for it. Novels are more my speed, if you will, and…it was right there! I couldn’t help myself. For the record, I checked it out to myself just in time, as there is now definitely a line of holds behind me. Phew. Also, I just found out that Memorial, just like Lot, made the Aspen Prize longlist. I cannot wait to get more into the books on the list (maybe a new reading challenge for me?). Anyways – it’s well deserved, as you’ll read in the rest of my review, so congrats to Washington!
A quick synopsis. Benson and Michael (Mike) have been dating and living together for the past few years. Things have been a bit…unsteady…lately though. Then Mike tells Benson that his mother is coming to visit and stay with them, maybe for months, and then immediately turns around and leaves for Japan to see his dying father (leaving Benson and his mother, who have never met, to figure out living together without him). From first Benson’s, then Mike’s, perspectives, we see the way these weeks change them. Benson and Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, learn to be around each other, while Benson also deals with his own family’s issues and finds solace in another new relationship, Omar. Meanwhile, Mike struggles to find footing in a relationship with the father he hasn’t seen in years and in a community that both is and isn’t home for him.
Let me start off with the big, resounding, most important reaction I had to this novel: I loved it. Every queer, multicultural page of it. Everything from the plot to the pacing to the writing to the characters to the dialogue…it all was just exactly wonderful. Washington’s writing is really unique, as far as style, but in a subtle way. There’s nothing that just looking at it would start out as super “different,” but there’s something about the way that he was able to take tiny pieces of life, like moments or vignettes or what even seemed like snippets of conversation, that alone should have been choppy, and bring them all together to create a story that was so full. I think, what really got me, was the intimacy to all of it. By pulling out those individual moments, some significant in a greater sense and some much less so, Washington hones in on the things that truly stick with us, the memories that stand up to time, and that writing device allows him to convey only the most impactful information to the reader. In that way, although individually there was a lot of jumping between them all, with the overall picture they create comes a sense of recognizability that deeply resonates with the reader and makes these characters pop. In addition, it gives a sort of sense that we are seeing right into all the most private moments for these characters, both presently and in the past, and it’s almost too intimate, like I’m reading things that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone. But in the best way. I felt like this in reading the sections both from Benson’s and Mike’s POVs. And, in fact, that might be my one (small) critique of the entire novel, is that their voices seemed…very similar. Although the structure was different (short chapters for Benson versus one long chapter with section break for Mike), the quick changes in topic/memory and general writing and conversational styles were similar enough that at times I had to check and make sure I had the right character in mind. But really, it was minor and didn’t take much, if anything, away from my strong positive feelings about the book.
Back to all the good stuff. A small thing, that I don’t know where else to put, is that I loved so much that Benson is a male childcare provider. That’s just wonderful. Also, really great inclusion of and positive rep for an HIV positive character. To be honest, I don’t know if I have ever really read it represented in this way before, an open and non-judgmental relation of handling it in relationships (both established and new), and now I can’t believe how rare it is. So that, too, is wonderful. In addition, this was such a multifaceted meditation on family ties and the idea of home. Both Benson and Mike had such complex, but also not uncommon, family situations. Nothing felt unrealistic or overly dramatic, ever, and yet there were so many layers of support and abandonment/let-down that were completely on display. And this is, as I mentioned earlier, a part of the novel that was so recognizable as to be painful to read sometimes. Washington’s skill here is that it’s recognizable to so many different people in different ways. Both Mike and Benson have distinct family relationships that when taken all together are nothing like anyone else’s (just like all of us), and yet in reading through, there were a number of those small memories/moments that he highlights that are so wildly familiar (despite, at least for this reader, personally having almost nothing in common with these characters). The way these deep veins of similar humanity are acknowledged and drawn out in the writing is spectacular.
Also, I loved their romantic relationships as well, both with each other and with the people they end up turning to when away from each other. There is so much hope in all of it – a tender sort of hope that both stays kindled despite everything, but suffers in intensity from all the buffeting it has to withstand. Interpersonal relationships are so hard in many different, yet comparable ways, and again Washington delivers a singular but familiar interpretation of it all. Also, very worth highlighting, the growth in connection between Benson and Mitsuko, by far the least conventional of them all, was absolutely one of my favorites to see develop. Overall, the emotions I had while reading, about all the focal relationships, just had me all over the emotional spectrum and I love that type of reading experience.
To end my review, let me make a note on the way the novel itself ended. This was such a fantastic, sensitive story of family and relationships and love, the journey to find and define love for ourselves, to accept and give it in ways that meet what we need it to be. The messages about how that is different for everyone, how the way to those discoveries and fulfillment are different for everyone, and how it changes with time (and that’s ok), is subtle but strong. And the novel ends in the perfect way to encapsulate that, leaving us with the final vibe that on the way to finding the ending we want, is finding ourselves and what makes us content. So, this novel ends less at an ending and more at an undefined change in direction. Showing that coming into our own confidence, we are faced with many as-yet-unchosen opportunities, but knowing what we want out of life and love, what makes someone/somewhere a home, we’ll be able to pick the path that feels most right to us. And the opportunity in that is everything.
A few of the many passages I marked while reading:
“Whole swaths of Houston look like chunks of other countries. There are potholes beside gourmet bakeries beside taquerías beside noodle bars, copied and pasted onto a greying landscape.”
“But a non-decision is a choice in itself.”
“It’s hard to head home without succumbing to nostalgia, standing where so many versions of yourself once stood, one of a suburb’s magical properties.”
“Let me guess, says my father. That was an insensitive comment. / I’m over it, I say. / You know I don’t mean it, say my father. / You’re a grown man. It is what it is. / I just don’t know the rules, says my father. They keep changing on me. / They’d be mandates if they didn’t, I say. / There’s a reason dictators do what they do, says my father.”
“Just because something isn’t working doesn’t mean it’s broken. You just have to want to fix it. The want has to be there.”
“He always said promises were only words, and words only meant what you made them.”
“History changes, I said. It adapts. / In the best-case scenarios, said Ben. And this isn’t a best-case country.”
“You shouldn’t make a home out of other people. / Is that right? / I think so. / You speaking from experience? / You could say that, I said. / Maybe you’ve met the wrong people, said Tan. Or you’ve met the wrong people for you. / Maybe, I said. But people change. And then you’re stuck in whatever your idea of home was. / There’s nothing wrong with that though, said Tan. We all change. We’ll all have plenty of homes in this life. It’s when you don’t that there’s an issue. That’s settling. / And what’s the difference between that and settling into one person? / That’s not for me to say. We all live our own lives.”
“That 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 just changes forms.”
“There’s this phenomenon that you’ll get sometimes – but not too often, if you’re lucky – where someone you think you know says something about your gayness that you weren’t expecting at all. Ben called it a tiny earthquake. I don’t think he was wrong. You’re destabilized, is the point. How much just depends on where the earthquake originates, the fault lines.”
“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.”