Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant and Benson's a Black day care teacher, and they've been together for a few good years, but now they're not sure why they're still a couple. There's the sex, sure, and the meals Mike cooks for Benson, and, well, they love each other. But when Mike finds out his estranged father is dying in Osaka just as his acerbic Japanese mother, Mitsuko, arrives in Texas for a visit, Mike picks up and flies across the world to say goodbye.
... tender and exhilarating ... The novel explores an entire system of forces that shape our identities—history, both personal and national, race, gender, sexuality and the movement of people across international, cultural and class borders—and dramatizes the collision of individual choice with these external pressures ... If this sounds like a lot to process in just 300 pages, it isn’t, because Memorial’s restless excavation of modern identity is artfully wrapped up in a romance narrative that is also a transpacific quest for parental love ... [a] wisecrack along racial lines perfectly illustrates the novel’s cultural awareness and confidence, as well as Washington’s fine judgement of timing and tricky situations.
Memorial is a profoundly sensitive story about the rough boundaries of love in a multicultural society. In fact, no other novel I’ve read this year captures so gracefully the full palette of America. The range of cultures, races, generations and sexual identities contending with one another in these pages is not a woke argument; it’s the nature of modern family life fully realized ... Memorial unfolds as a series of isolated moments, many only a page long, some merely a single line. Told first from Ben’s perspective and then from Mike’s, these moments continually blend past and present, enacting each narrator’s confession as a kind of prose poem ... Washington inhabits these two men so naturally that the sophistication of this form is rendered entirely invisible, and their narratives unspool as spontaneously and clearly as late-night conversation ... In a disposable society, Memorial is a testament to the permanence of filial connections, a clear-eyed acknowledgment that our relatives don’t always behave nicely, but they’re with us for life.
A sense of self-estrangement pervades Memorial which centers on the relationship between Mike and his Black boyfriend, Ben (short for Benson) ... From the beginning, then, Washington lays out the various factors that lay a claim on us and help determine who we are: race, nationality, sexual orientation, family. Over the course of the novel these vectors cross and get tangled up, binding Mike and Ben in knots ... In plain, confident prose, Washington deftly records the way the forces of loyalty pull the heartstrings in different directions. The tone and dialogue are cool, almost jaded, gesturing obliquely at the emotions roiling beneath the surface ... Memorial leaves us with the sense that our true selves, like our true names, aren’t necessarily bestowed at birth. They are chosen, too.