I wish I had read Lot before Memorial. Bryan Washington’s novel Memorial transmitted on all of the frequencies I’m equipped to receive. It tells the story of a relationship that may or may not be dissolving, from the dual points of view of its two gay protagonists, Benson and Mike.
Using the language of ambivalence and low-grade melancholy, it simultaneously describes the paralysis of arrested development (of the men, of the relationship) and - one by one - the layers or trauma, family, race, class and sexuality they both need to reveal before they can move on. The destination is heartfelt but unsentimental, each small emotion earned, to cumulatively powerful effect. I was on its wavelength throughout and it made reading this slow-burn of a novel a hugely rewarding experience.
Lot, Washington’s earlier book of stories – or is it a novel in disguise? – creates the universe and operates as an origin story of sorts. It was slightly denser, less accessible, but eventually just as rewarding.
Washington draws a map of Houston (most stories are named after a street or place) and its ethnically-diverse communities, cohabiting against a backdrop of social and economic neglect. Lot provides a bird’s eye view of this sweaty Texan metropolis, but within each story, the perspective is kept at street level. Those who’ve just arrived exist alongside those trying to make a life as best they can… and those who dream of leaving. They navigate the fault lines of family, race, class, sexuality and associated traumas day by day, heroically, without analysis or complaint.
Lot lays the ground rules for Washington’s writing. Epiphanies are rare and don’t explode like revelations but instead percolate slowly, easily missed; there is no single truth, every character’s valid perspective shaped by culture, class and lived experience; No editorializing or generalizing: the hyper-specific is the only way to glimpse the universal.
Threaded throughout is the coming-of-age of a mixed-race queer narrator, who grows up before our eyes, finding himself through abandonment, grief and sex, until he is finally given a name (and a Gulf Coast baptism of sorts) when he leaves Houston behind. Washington’s language is authentic and self-assured, vulgar and poetic. It never feels voyeuristic even if most readers access it from a place of privilege. It’s strikingly original: uncompromising but inviting.
Lot reminds me of the pared back films of Asian masters such as Yasujiro Ozu, Hirokazu Kore-Eda or Edward Yang. A million miles away from the busy streets of Houston these humanist filmmakers find beauty in the mundane and eschew sentimentality or cathartic emotions. Instead, they invite you to sit and observe as their stories grow organically, like a tree. If the season is right, the tree bears fruit. Even then, it’s up to you to stand up, reach out and pick them: they taste all the juicier for the effort.