Sunday, February 28, 2021

BOOKS! (Luster + Memorial)

Black History Month is coming to a close, and it seemed to pass more quickly and with less exuberance than in recent years, but hey. We're here. And I'm ending this month by reviewing two debut novels, about twenty-somethings in personal and relationship crises, that were written by Black authors! Both of these novels were released during the second half of 2020, and they were both given to me by my mom as birthday/Christmas presents. I'd included them on my wish list because authors and bookstagrammers that I follow were raving about them throughout the year.

Luster by Raven Leilani

Edie is functional but struggling, and has been that way for a long time. She was raised by traumatized parents—her mom dealt with addiction for years, her dad was a war veteran with PTSD—both of whom attempted to find stability in a strict Caribbean religious community. And Edie has experienced trauma of her own: from growing up out of place in a mostly-white area in the 1990s/early 2000s, to body image issues exacerbated by comments from churchwomen, to discovering her mom's dead body and being neglected by her dad afterward. Now as an adult in New York City with no living parents, she's barely making ends meet with the lackluster position she has at a publishing house, she's living in a run-down building that she'll soon be priced out of despite how unlivable it is, she has no friends (except maybe her roommate?), she's tried staving off loneliness/boredom/horniness through not-so-secret liaisons with numerous co-workers and various men who don't care about her, and the only dream she can summon the will to entertain (being a professional working artist) seems relegated to the realm of fantasy. She can't get the art director at the publishing house to take her work seriously enough to let her join his department, and her commitment to practicing her craft has waned. Eventually Edie finds herself fired for her indiscretions at work, and without a home when her roommate moves out and she can't pay the full rent by herself. "Depressed" and "going through it" would be understatements for all that Edie's dealing with.
That's where Eric Walker comes in, 23 years her senior. Eric is the white, relatively wealthy archivist with an open marriage whom Edie meets through a dating app while she's still working at the publishing house. They establish a rapport that Edie views as an emotional investment, and as much as she hates feeling ignored, her limited access to Eric's time and affection make her want him all the more. She and Eric have a (consensual?) sexually-violent moment after she lets herself into Eric's house in New Jersey and unwittingly crashes his anniversary party, and Edie seems aroused by the pain/punishment, but it's unclear whether this is genuinely her kink or if she might also be using it as a form of self-harm. Following this incident, it's actually Eric's medical examiner wife Rebecca who moves Edie into their family home (without Eric's knowledge at first) when Edie has nowhere to go and is spread too thin by odd jobs. Edie stays with the Walkers for two months, and a tacit agreement develops during that time: Edie must look after their almost-13-year-old adopted Black daughter named Akila and basically teach her how to be Black, in exchange for staying in their guest room and earning some cash here and there. 
Now. I'd assumed that having sex with Eric was also on the table, because I don't know how one would expect the husband and the mistress not to copulate while allowing them to live under the same roof. But when Eric gets over being upset that Edie's in his house and the pair eventually re-initiate sexual relations, they hide it from Rebecca, and when Rebecca eventually finds them out, she's disappointed in them. (Especially in Edie, whom I guess Rebecca has come to think of as a friend in some way.) Which I truly did not understand. But I digress. Edie and Akila gradually bond over video games, and Edie's guidance proves to be desperately needed to fill the gaps in the kid's Black girlhood: Akila's parents haven't bothered to learn to do her hair, or surround her with other Black people, or advise her on how to deal with police and why such precautions are necessary. And everyone in the house just goes along with this living arrangement without directly addressing it; even Akila somehow knows that Edie is "the girlfriend"! Presumably, this absurd reluctance to discuss anything real is a function of the Walkers' whiteness that Raven Leilani wants to demonstrate. Most of the important things are implied or unacknowledged, confrontation is sparser than it should be, and Edie is largely left to deduce the dynamics of the household and what is expected of her.
In all honesty, I had a hard time dismissing the impulse to judge Edie for allowing herself to be, effectively, these white people's servant. I struggled to not see her that way. Cleaning their home, instructing their adopted daughter in the ways of Blackness in addition to driving her to taekwondo practice, sexually satisfying the (white) man of the house... I wanted more for Edie than that. And I had to question myself: Am I offended or even angry that Edie is so stuck on this average white man, whose only distinguishing features are his nerdiness and above-average resources, and who isn't as emotionally invested in her as she is in him? If so, why am I offended or angry? And is she not also satisfying herself in some ways? Furthermore, she's got no one, she's been suffering emotionally and financially for years, and she has a history of making unwise/bizarre decisions and forming unhealthy attachments with people (let her tell it, she never "means" for things to happen the way they do, they just happen). So on exactly what grounds am I expecting her to do anything different from what she's doing right now?

I was so focused on the more scandalous elements of the book (admittedly that's what drew me to it in the first place), until I realized that what's even more meaningful here is Edie's path back to her artistry. After she starts seeing Eric, she digs out her art supplies for the first time in two years and tries to paint a portrait of him. While living with the Walkers, she passes the time by taking pictures of various items around the house and then holing herself in her room to commit those same images to paint. At some point Rebecca discovers Edie's paintings and starts taking Edie to work with her so Edie can paint cadavers (improving her mastery of anatomy) while Rebecca performs autopsies. The book even ends with Edie doing what? Painting. That's what this story is inching us toward, not whatever dramatic fallout I was expecting for the messy and awkward open marriage/cohabitation scenario that Edie's entered. Because that scenario ends pretty much as one would expect it to. After Edie has encountered more loss along with more inspiration, the novel closes with her living on her own again and creating a new painting before unpacking her new place. She's prepared to start anew and finally embrace herself as an artist, even. Because with or without the validation she craves from others, painting is something she just can't not do.

If you are an artist and feel like you've lapsed or that your work isn't "good", are a fan of disco music, like peeking into messy relationships, have ever struggled to make ends meet in a big city, care about the trauma that Black women and girls face, or are intrigued by somewhat peculiar sex scenes, then read this book! 

Favorite quotes:

"Eric's enthusiasm is infectious. After the first two rides, I am enjoying myself, and not just because dying means I won't have to pay my student loans" (9-10).

"During this time, I couldn't tell if I liked being alone, or if I only endured it because I knew I had no choice... This was the contradiction that would define me for years, my attempt to secure undiluted solitude and my swift betrayal of this effort once in the spotlight of an interested man. I was pretending not to worry about the consequences of my isolation. But whenever I talked to anyone, I found myself overcompensating for the atrophy of my social muscles (44-45).

"I was sixteen. I could not have been a mother. The women in my family maybe should not have been mothers. This is not so much a judgment as a fact. They were dying inside their own bodies, and now all these dead components are my inheritance" (195).

"but somehow, after being a woman for twenty-three years... I too am still alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat" (208).

Memorial  by Bryan Washington 

By the time Mike leaves Houston for Osaka to be with his dying father who abandoned him 15 years prior, giving his boyfriend Benson only a day's notice beforehand, these two lovers' relationship is already on the rocks. After four years together, Mike and Benson still love each other but love isn't enough to prevent them from fighting (with their words and their hands), or to mitigate the problems that they keep trying to solve through sex, silence, and willful forgetting. Add on the fact that Mike leaves with the full knowledge that his mother Mitsuko is flying in from Tokyo to visit him, and he doesn't tell her his plans until she arrives in Houston, and you've got a trio of people with a lion's share of unresolved issues between them. A Black American man is forced to be the unprepared host to a Japanese mom who's none too pleased to be in a stranger's care, while the Japanese American man who connects them has jetted off to the other side of the world. 

This novel is divided into three sections. First up is Benson's perspective on life in Houston, his job at a daycare, his difficult family history, and the twists and turns of his sexual history as a young gay man (including but not exclusive to Mike). The second part covers Mike's time in Osaka as he both cares for and argues incessantly with his disagreeable father Eiju, uncovers family secrets, and puts his chef skills to use by helping to run Eiju's small bar (the gruff warmth of that place gave me some very pleasant 'Shinya Shokudo' vibes). The third and final part is from Benson's perspective again, but has the couple reunited in Houston, attempting to figure out the future of their relationship and tying up loose ends with Mitsuko before she returns to Japan. After having read both Memorial and Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Last Friend—another novel that examines a relationship from the alternating perspectives of the two people in it—I'm very curious about the thought process behind how an author of such a novel chooses which perspective is presented first. I'd assume that Bryan Washington knew that having Benson go first would automatically afford him the benefit of the doubt regarding what he says about Mike and himself, especially since he's stating his case first, his voice familiarizes readers with what's going on, and he sets the tone for the rest of the novel. I think the book is arranged exactly as it needs to be, but I do wonder how the story would change if the order were switched.

It goes without saying that Benson and Mike's relationship is in trouble, and both men have their faults. I was so turned off by how inconsiderate Mike was to leave Benson and Mitsuko like that at the beginning of the novel, and then only communicate with them sparingly while he's away. Even toward the end when he and Benson discuss their options, he's one-track minded about moving to Osaka and doesn't believe Benson stands to lose as much as he does by leaving Houston for good. But at the same time, by going to Osaka when he does, Mike is able to accompany his dad during Eiju's final months in addition to learning the business sufficiently enough that Eiju can die reassured that someone he trusts can take over the bar when he's gone. If Mike hadn't been impulsive (one might even say selfish) enough to do that, even with all the distress and confusion it causes his boyfriend and his mom, he would've missed out on all those extra moments with Eiju and Eiju would've died alone. So to a certain extent, I get it. As for Benson, he definitely has anger issues and takes them out on Mike during their many arguments. But if I were a gay Black man in Texas, who was saddled with the responsibility of looking after my abusive alcoholic father while my mom and sister got to move on with their lives, and then my parents rejected me when I need them the most, and my first love was turning sour, and then my boyfriend left me alone with his mom for an undetermined amount of time while he flew across the world... I would be angry too. My point is that as imperfect as both Benson and Mike are, they have their reasons.

On a lighter note, Washington's sense of humor comes through so clearly, and this novel has so many delightful quirks! Like how Washington's intentional choice to truncate "white boy", "white chick", and "white lady" into "whiteboy", "whitechick", "whitelady" and so on emphasizes the particular type yet unremarkable quality of the white people he's referring to. Or how the often deadpan ("acerbic" as the book jacket describes her), suffer-no-fools Mitsuko cries her eyes out watching the rom-com Maid In Manhattan of all things. Or how Ahmad, the sole Black kid at the daycare who also seems to only listen to Benson, is an adorable little visionary who bucks rules and doesn't mince words. Or how the epigraph of this novel includes a quote from a Japanese reality show called 'Terrace House', said by a bassist named Masao Wada (a.k.a. Kyujitsu Kacho) who's also in an incredibly famous band called Gesu no Kiwami Otome. (My point of connection to Masao Wada was the latter, but upon googling the quote I found an article of Washington's that makes very clear how much of a 'Terrace House' fan he is.) Relatedly, Washington writes about Japan and Japanese things like someone who's been there before and was paying thoughtful attention while he was there, which I appreciate. Also, fat people generally don't get to be fully-realized and complex romantic leads in enough forms of media, so I appreciate that Mike is very clearly noted as being fat or chubby. I wish he didn't have to feel as self-conscious about it as he is, but that's an understandable hang-up for a person to have in a fatphobic world. Last but not least, it's also worth mentioning that just like Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other, all the dialogue is written without quotation marks; in fact, there are none to be found in the entire novel. I know this is a literary choice, but I don't know the "why" behind it. Perhaps it's a trend?

As I progressed through this book, I tried to figure out why it's titled Memorial. I was thinking maybe the entire story serves as a "memorial" to Benson and Mike's relationship, bracing readers for their eventual and inevitable breakup, but the book doesn't exactly end that way. So I'm not sure about that theory. There's also a street in Houston called Memorial that's mentioned in connection to the releasing of Eiju's ashes, so maybe that could be it? I'm aware that I could just look it up and see what Bryan Washington has actually said about the title, but I suppose I want to sit with my guesses for a little while longer. As for whether this book merits the hype it's been receiving, I'll say this: I have no experience with dating or romantic relationships. None. Literally zero. And even I was feeling emotionally raw by the time I finished reading Memorial. That's how heartfelt and affecting it is. I did my best to speed through it for the sake of writing a review by the end of this month, but it's definitely a read that people should let linger. Take your time with it. If you have any interest in Houston and/or Osaka, are amused by odd couple situations, have dysfunctional relationships with your parents, love food/cooking descriptions (especially of Japanese food), want to read a gay love story featuring Black and Asian characters, or have ever been unable (unwilling) to decide whether a relationship is worth saving or has run its course, then read this book!
 Favorite quotes:
"A story is an heirloom. It's a personal thing... You don't ask for heirlooms. They're just given to you" (93).
 "I didn't tell him not to give up so easily, because he'd already made his decision.
I didn't tell him that we didn't know he was going to die, because everyone dies.
I didn't ask him why he'd already given up, because I didn't need to know.
I didn't tell him that it was too little too late, that forgiveness isn't something you just hand out whenever you feel like it.
I said, Okay" (157).

"No one gets to choose what steadies them" (172).

"It's not a waste, is what I'm saying. There are no wastes. Either nothing is a waste, or everything is a waste. But you two could do worse than each other, than being in each other's lives. Do you understand?" (300).