The relationship between Mike and Ben, the main characters in Bryan Washington’s Memorial, seems to have come to a turning point. They’ve lived together for years, and they love each other, but do they really get each other? Is their relationship made to last? How do you know when it’s time to move on?
It all comes to a head when Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, suddenly arrives from Osaka, at the same time Mike decides to go to Osaka to see his dying father, who he’s been estranged from for years. So that leaves Ben at home alone with a strange woman, while his family is trying to urge him to mend fences with his own father.
One thing I like about this book is the way it treats the core relationship. Ben is a Black man in a relationship with a Japanese-American man, and, although their race and sexuality matter, they are not the central features of the relationship. These are two people in love, but also in conflict a lot of the time. They fight a lot and have a lot of sex. (The descriptions of sex are some of the most explicit I’ve come across involving two men, yet it’s treated almost matter-of-factly, as a totally normal part of the relationship because of course it is.) Whether any of this is right for the long term is not clear to them or to the reader.
That ambiguity at times made it hard for me to know what I was supposed to be rooting for. For Mike to come back from Japan? For Ben to leave Mike for the guy he met at the day-care where he works? It made for a sometimes frustrating reading experience, but I think that’s the point. Mike and Ben could be a good couple, but they could also be fine apart. Trying to make big monumental decisions when either option could be okay (or not) is frustrating.
I also liked the book’s sense of place in the sections about Houston. I’ve never been to Houston and know little about it, but the level of detail felt authentic. I’ve gathered from other reviews that it gets Houston. I hope that it does. Osaka, on the other hand, did not come alive to me. In fact, the whole section that took place in Osaka seemed too long and somewhat monotonous. Maybe Mike just isn’t as likable. Or maybe it showed that if you leave home, you take your problems with you, and Mike took his sense of aimlessness to Osaka.