Memorial by Bryan Washington

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Lot by Bryan Washington was my book of the year in 2019 and you can read that review here and I have been eagerly awaiting his novel Memorial for some time, staring wide eyed with delight at the announcements as they etched closer to a release date – and then the day was finally here, it was like all my Christmases had come at once. But instead of unpacking that gift I’ve been longing for, I was unfortunately opening something that I thought I wanted but it wasn’t what I was expecting at all.

Memorial is set in Houston, it has a smallish cast of characters and is a very character driven book, the plot doesn’t really strive for greatness, it’s more about the lives on the page, the lives that are falling apart – so knowing what a great job Washington had done with Lot (which shares some similar topics) you’d think this would be another home run, but it wasn’t. There’s something quite off with this novel and I’ll try to explain this in more detail as we progress with the review.

To me the novel felt rushed, not the plot of the story (which at points was so dull I had to take a break and pick up another book to keep me awake), but I feel that this book was rushed out. Obviously Lot was received well with the general public and it was also A Barack Obama Book of the Year – it also won the Dylan Thomas Prize. So, personal opinion here I think that it was rushed out to cash in on an audience that was thirsty for more of the gritty, powerful prose that one found in Lot – it just all feels a bit too rushed. I feel also that it was missing a strong editor, someone to step in and cut probably fifty pages from this book (you could do that and still have the story that Washington wants to tell) and it would feel 100% better with pacing. I also feel that this was more a passion project than a novel of any substance and weight, which is a real shame, as it had some potential but this potential seemed to get lost somewhere along the way.

I followed Bryan Washington on Instagram a while back (after reading Lot) and it’s quite clear to see that he loves cooking and food with an undying passion, his whole Instagram feed is full of pictures of his cooking or the fine dining experiences he so much enjoys. And this is where I feel this book turned into a passion piece (don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with writing about your passions and what you know) because there are literally chapters dedicated to cooking, about chopping vegetables, boiling rice, buying ingredients. If I wanted a cookbook I’d buy myself a cookbook (it’s no Kitchen Confidential) – it felt like because Washington loves cooking, we should too and these sections are so dull and boring that it had me skimming these parts until I got to the next passage, but sometimes it would be three or four long paragraphs before he’d finish detailing the cooking aspects.

The story centers on two main protagonists Benson and Mike – when Mike hears the news that his father is dying he heads off to Japan to be with him, just at the same time Mike’s mother has come to stay, so as Mike heads off and  his mother begins to bed down at Benson and Mikes place, leaving Benson with the task of entertaining Mike’s mother.

Another big issues I had with the book is that because it’s a character driven piece, you really need to care about the characters, and I should have, I should have really cared about their plight, about the racism they face and the homophobia that litters the pages, about their struggling and sometimes abusive relationship – but the thing is, I just didn’t, I couldn’t connect with them, I don’t know if that’s due to the way Washington wrote the characters, but I just found them both insufferable, I didn’t connect with them at all, so unfortunately I felt the weight of the story was lost on me. I found Benson and Mike quite boring – and if I were in a relationship with either one of them I’d be looking to get out too!

But I also feel that a great deal to me not connecting with them was in part due to the plot being disrupted time-and-time again with paragraphs of cooking instructions and simmering pots and eggs in rice and chopsticks and how to slice a tomato and where to buy Japanese food and how much seasoning is right and what seasoning is best and should we eat here or there and should we brown the fish both sides and should we have soup and should we add chicken – you get my drift!

There is also a severe lack of what I would call prose magic here, in Lot the pages are littered with wonderfully structured stories, fabulously deep and enjoyable characters, you can see the beauty in the prose on the page, the passion in the words, the heartrending tragedy of what is playing out before us; where a short turn of phrase from Washington would just blow me away – the whole collection is told in crisp and urgent writing. But in Memorial, it’s just stagnant, it’s just words on a page that didn’t make me feel anything, that didn’t make me connect, I actually felt quite numb to the whole process of reading this book. I don’t know if I built this book up too much in my head, if I was expecting too much from Washington, but if you take a look at the reviews on Goodreads you’ll see that I’m not the only one who thinks this is more miss than hit, and who also feel quite disappointed by the final product. But of course I am just one voice, one person, and as they say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, I just couldn’t see anything.

There is something in this book that is important, there is a message here, a message about hope, about race and about sexuality, but it’s lost, it’s cut up and disjointed within the prose, like confetti scattered to the winds. It’s a shame as the concept at its core is something I would usually lap up if it were put across in cleaner and more skilled prose and not all wrapped up in what appears to be a book of cooking craft.

There are a few other issues I had with the book too.

Firstly there is so much swearing in the book, I’m not against swearing, but it appeared that there were just swearwords on every page, it was done through their dialogue mainly, how they talked and I understand that this is probably true to the characters that Washington was putting on the page (I’ve an Uncle and Auntie that turn the air blue every time I see them – which makes family get togethers interesting with a ten year old and a six year old) but that was just another thing I grew bored of in this instance.

Secondly, what is the fascination with not using speech marks in modern fiction? It just drives me crazy, there were so many times in this book that I was bumped out of the story as I had to re-read passages again and again to work out who was talking and if they were talking and it wasn’t their internal dialogue. It’s just so frustrating (possibly personal choice that one but my goodness it just infuriates me).

And finally another issue I had and again I feel this was another of the passion pieces that I spoke about before with regards to the cooking aspect, and another thing I felt that didn’t really need to be in the book were the photographs. They served no purpose whatsoever, Washington had already perfectly detailed what the photo was of, but then you get a photographic representation (an actual photo) inserted into the book, but they don’t even reflect the words on the page. An example of this is at one point Benson says he gets sent a selfie from Mike but the picture that is shown is of a street, there’s no one in the picture? It feels that these were just some photos from Washington’s Instagram account that he wanted in the book – it just irked me, it was so simple to fix but no one noticed that they don’t match what is being spoken about, so one would ask what was the point? Also, use your words man, believe in your words, use your wonderful words and don’t resort to gimmicks.

If I hadn’t have read Lot first I’d probably not pick up another Washington book after reading Memorial – but because I have, and I know how great a writer Washington is, I’ll keep the faith for his next offering. I’d encourage you to check out Washington’s work as I mentioned previously I’m just one voice in a clanging sea of opinions.

Memorial is published by Atlantic Books and is available here.

Bryan Washington

Bryan Washington has written for the New York Times, the New York Times MagazineNew York MagazineBuzzFeedThe Paris ReviewBoston ReviewTin HouseOne StoryGQFADERThe Awl, and Catapult. He lives in Houston, Texas.

BryWashing.com / @BryWashing

Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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