Bryan Washington sets the table in Family Meal with an abundance of ordinary details. His characters are busy with their hands, for instance: they might play with their thumbs, twirl a pen, throw the peace sign, or flick a cherry tomato. Fingers press into orifices and bodily fluids, press cell phone screens, and press layers of pastry dough.
Washington apportions intimacy and isolation, exchange and silence, and he draws readers into delicate moments of recognition. As pages turn, a series of connections and disconnections are pressed between them, into an organic network of relationships.
Readers of Washington’s previous novel, Memorial, and debut short story collection, Lot, will anticipate the focus on relationships. Like Brandon Taylor and Douglas Stuart, Washington’s fiction focuses on young gay men finding one another and finding themselves.
One remarkable tool in Washington’s repertoire is his use of space and time; both are fundamentally important in this novel, though rooted in his finesse with characterization and voice.
Family Meal is set, partly, in Houston, a section described as “beautiful garbage,” with a soundtrack of toddlers, traffic, and sirens—that “don’t sound any closer, but they don’t disappear either. It could just be the backdrop of the city. Houston’s natural state.” Baton Rouge is prominent, too, with sugar plants and liquor stores, “barren grass and browning concrete.” These neighborhoods might be familiar to readers, but the characters’ experiences of them are personal, unique. (As in Washington’s short story, “Waugh,” “their city may have been big, but their orbits were infinitesimally small.”)
The central characters are established geographically but the story hinges on disruptions. Cam’s story begins and ends in Houston via L.A., his lover’s story begins in Baton Rouge and ends in L.A. via Japan and, through it all, T.J. lives in Houston—in the house Cam has called home since his parents died when he was a boy. Changes, past and present, reverberate throughout the novel.
Uncaptioned photographs, like Polaroids stuck between the pages, of buildings and landscapes (in these cities and in Japan), imply many lives unfolding side-by-side but unseen, alongside wires and cables that connect people locally and globally. What are we, if not “interlinked atoms scattered across a permanent digital grid,” characters query—directly or wordlessly.
In the digital age, we can disconnect from someone instantaneously. “It would take less than three clicks. We have no friends in common. No overlapping routines. He practically wouldn’t exist anymore.” Whether a one-time hookup, an FWB agreement, or a ‘til-death-do-we-part relationship, Washington explores interpersonal dynamics astutely. His characters wrestle with impermanence and losses, habitual and catastrophic: “Isn’t living a terminal condition?”
Technology can obliterate but also preserve: “When Cam’s voicemail clicked on, he sounded exactly the same, as if nothing had changed—giggling like he was in on the joke, telling whoever was calling to try writing him a letter instead.” In voicemail and photographs, time is captured, stilled.
Cam’s perspective, while he grieves his lover’s death, opens the novel and comprises a third of the whole. The geography of the page is largely uninhabited, sections of white space recreating his loneliness and the buffer he maintains as insulation. Simultaneously, however, Cam views the world as determinedly interconnected, even summer’s intense and overwhelming humidity: “Every breath feels like work, but somehow it’s comforting that everyone else in Houston is dealing with this, too.”
The remainder of the novel presents shifting perspectives, between characters and between timelines; it culminates in a broader view of Cam’s experiences and choices, that intensifies readers’ understanding of this loss in the context of a lifetime’s love and loss.
His non-linear structure reveals that Washington ultimately prioritizes the relationship between readers and story; he offers readers a broader perspective than any single character, affording the opportunity to marvel at how people come and go together, the opportunity to marvel at how writers create stories out of the air.
“When it dissolves, you might not see it, but that won’t mean it wasn’t there,” Cam remembers Kai saying about love. In the context of gay lit about life and love—from James Baldwin to Larry Duplechan, from Stephen McCauley to Michael Cunningham—Bryan Washington is a nexus of gritty glitter. Memory might be as nourishing as a plateful of food: “Then I take bites from the spaghetti and the chicken, and it’s all delicious, and the three of us eat silently, until there’s something like a hum between us.” But one can also lose oneself in memory, disappear, dissolve.
When one character flicks a cherry tomato at another in Family Meal, the point of contact could be a mouth or an eye: it could go either way. But his storytelling exudes such confidence, that readers imagine that tomato dramatically arcing, humming the whole length of the table, and landing between his teeth—denting the flesh, tenderly and intentionally.
by Bryan Washington
Published on October 10, 2023