- What: The Great Believers
- Who: Rebecca Makkai
- Pages: 418, soft cover
- Genres: Historical and contemporary fiction
- Published: 2018
- The lit: of 5 flames
I’ve always proclaimed one of the best things about literature is its ability to tell hidden or disgraced stories and to open our eyes to dark corners of the world. It saddens me — though I’m grateful it happened — that literature taught me about the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. Shouldn’t I have learned more about this growing up and in school? Honestly, my ignorance as a 27-year-old astonishes me.
Did I fully understand the power and effects of this catastrophe in the 80s? How it ripped through a community and denounced a way of life all over again? How it took us five steps back on our way toward social justice? How the scars of those it affected live prominently for the rest of their lives?
I never understood any of this until Tell the Wolves I’m Home came into my life. It was reinforced and explained through different perspectives with The Great Believers just a few weeks ago. As a kid, my history classes either conveniently glazed over this time in American history, or the school year conveniently ended before we made it this far in America’s story. Fortunately, we have authors, such as Carol Rifka Brunt and Rebecca Makkai, who refuse to let these tragedies go untold.
The year is 1985. AIDS has struck the U.S., including in cities like Chicago that have a large gay population but don’t receive the national attention that cities such as New York or L.A. do. The virus is closing in on communities and individuals, and Yale Tishman isn’t the exception. A gay man who is about to see his career in art development take off just as friends around him diminish, Yale feels confused, scared, and a desire to speak out, though he hasn’t really found his voice yet. Unlike so many around him, he’s always had his health, but when that’s thrown in jeopardy, he leans on the one person he still has left: Fiona, the sister of his deceased friend, Nico.
Thirty years later, Fiona is flying to Paris to find her estranged daughter. Claire never felt like she mattered to Fiona, who is still reeling from the emotional impact of the AIDS crisis and all the lost that ensued. While she searches for Claire, Fiona confronts the pain from those years and how it shaped every relationship she’s had since then — including the one with her daughter. Fiona reinforces to us that a harrowing tragedy such as this one will stay with you for your whole life no matter how hard you try to move on from it.
“It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.” — The Great Believers
This torment that can encapsulate a life is fully represented by the structure that Makkai has utilized in The Great Believers. Each chapter moves between the mid-80s and 2015, clearly illustrating the great trajectory of pain the AIDS crisis catalyzed. Fiona never had the capacity to be a loving, doting, and caring mother because she exercised all that effort with her brother and his friends. And look at the loss that emanated in spite of it. How can someone recover from that?
Admittedly at times, I had wished that the present-day trouble in Fiona’s life hadn’t been introduced to the story. I’d have much rather preferred to stay in the mid-80s and cry from the pain (both literal and emotional) and persecution of the gay community than be transported to 2015 Paris and read about a crumpled mother-daughter relationship. I felt a disconnect between the time periods.
Forgetting about the present day, though, would have weakened the power Makkai conveys in her structure and simultaneous plot lines. I just needed the book to come full circle to fully realize her point that despite a cure and increased survival rates, the era’s anguish never dissipated and had ripple effects for years and generations to come. It is always front and center for those who experienced it first-hand and even those who experienced it second-hand.
“And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone’s life. Making room for someone in yours.” — The Great Believers
Makkai also excels at proving how this virus complicated aspects of everyday life. Sometimes it amplified a seemingly small situation; at others, the magnitude dwindled. The usual throes of a relationship could never be predicted. Being unfaithful meant something completely different than just emotional turmoil. It could mean a life sentence, or it could mean forgiveness in the light of that person’s physical suffering. These details and storylines question everything we know about love, friendship, forgiveness, and health, and they speak to unfathomable decision-making.
“[The Great Believers is] right on target in addressing how the things that the world throws us feel gratuitously out of step with the lives we think we’re leading,” writes Michael Upchurch of the Chicago Tribune.
He’s certainly right about that.
I’d be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention the one flaw that nagged at me for most of the novel and that wasn’t remedied at the end. To demonstrate Yale’s promising art career, Makkai incorporates a backstory about 1920s art that turns into a big plot piece; however, it left me a little bewildered and bored. Every time the story went back to these moments, I yearned for it to be over so the bigger issues could be front and center. While I appreciate the messages this backstory imparts (i.e., comparing AIDS to war and showcasing how these men tried to go about their daily lives), I could have done without it. For me, it distracted from the story’s main bravery and bravado.
Makkai’s craft and influence don’t get muddled by this storyline thankfully. She has the ability to awaken readers and enlighten the ignorant, which is probably why The Great Believers was a 2019 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. It’s so easy to assume we’ve moved on from the suffering of the 80s and in the right direction when that naive assumption could not be further from the truth. Grief never dies; it stays with us forever — sometimes without us even knowing — and can permeate our entire existence. Makkai effortlessly reminds us that in her writing.
“How could she explain that this city was a graveyard? That they were walking every day through streets where there had been a holocaust, a mass murder of neglect and antipathy, that when they stepped through a pocket of cold air, didn’t they understand it was a ghost, it was a boy the world had spat out?” — The Great Believers