(This book was selected as one of The New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2018. For the rest of the list, click here.)
THE GREAT BELIEVERS
By Rebecca Makkai
421 pp. Viking. $27.
Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers” is a page turner about illness and mortality.
The novel tells, in alternating chapters, about a group of friends, most of them gay men, in Chicago in the mid-to-late 1980s, and about a woman in 2015 who has gone to Paris in search of her estranged daughter.
I’m afraid the very phrase “a group of friends, most of them gay men” immediately implies the nature of the mortality that’s central to the book. “The Great Believers” is, as far as I know, among the first novels to chronicle the AIDS epidemic from its initial outbreak to the present — among the first, that is, to convey the terrors and tragedies of the epidemic’s early years as well as its course and its repercussions over the decades. Makkai puts the epidemic (which, of course, has not yet ended) into historical perspective without distancing it or blunting its horrors.
Although it would be impossible, not to mention morally reprehensible, to try to single out the most ruinous period in the AIDS pandemic, those initial years (H.I.V. was first identified in 1983) were terrifying in their own particular way. By 1985, in one of the crueler ironies of the century, gay men had learned that the liberation of the libido, the casting-off of eons-old shame, had exposed them to an implacable, hitherto unknown virus. There was no medication except a drug known as AZT, which was mostly a palliative, and not a very effective one. An AIDS diagnosis, in 1985, was considered a death sentence.
The cohort of friends and lovers in Makkai’s novel live in a constant state of morbid apprehension, first awaiting their test results and then, if the news is bad, awaiting their initial symptoms. Primary among the group (many of whom have already slept with, and infected, one another, back when sex seemed harmless) is a young man named Yale Tishman, recently hired by Northwestern University to help establish a permanent collection for a campus art gallery. Gentle and thoroughly decent, he lives with Charlie Keene, the publisher of a gay newspaper, who is possessive, sulk-prone and just generally a piece of work. For them, as for many, questions about fidelity, and about secrets, take on a new urgency once contagion enters the picture.
“The Great Believers” is peppered with surprises, a minor wonder in a narrative so rife with dreadfully foregone conclusions. As is true of many good novels, writing about it requires considerable navigation around spoilers. Suffice it to say that in the mid-80s sections the grim reaper runs rampant, but there’s no telling who’ll be felled and who’ll be spared. The 2015 sections are, in their way, a detective story. How, after all, does a mother locate her adult daughter, knowing only that she’s somewhere in Paris?
When the novel opens, in 1985, a popular and charismatic man named Nico Marcus has recently died of AIDS, and his family — except for his smart and spirited younger sister, Fiona — prefers to let the cause of his demise go unmentioned. Fiona, who figures peripherally in the mid-80s chapters, moves to the fore in the 2015 chapters, when she, now in her 50s, searches Paris for her lost daughter, Claire, who may have left both a man and a religious cult, and who has no desire to be found.
It would be futile to try to convey the novel’s considerable population, or its plots and subplots, though both population and plots are ingeniously interwoven. The question “What happens next?” remains pressing from the first page to the last. There’s also a highly satisfying underlayer of narrative cause and effect, which may not at first be apparent. The falsehood-filled funeral staged by Nico’s family leads to a wild, impromptu wake put on by his friends, which leads to. … Here, already, is a spoiler, from which I’ll refrain.
Makkai, the author of two previous novels and a story collection, is good at differentiating her characters, sometimes with only a couple of spot-on details. She’s particularly impressive in the mid-80s sections, where — let’s face it — it would be all too easy for a writer to portray a group of young, prosperous, party-prone gay men as essentially the same person, in different (well, really, not all that different) bodies.
It’s a pleasure, as well, when a narrative opens up worlds not familiar to most readers, when it offers actual information along with the momentum of its story and its characters. “The Great Believers,” especially in the ’80s sections, revolves around an attempt by Yale and his boss to acquire a trove of drawings by great artists of the early 20th century. Makkai turns the question of authentification — are the drawings real or clever forgeries? — into a cliffhanger and raises provocative questions about value. A sketch by Modigliani is a treasure, but the same sketch, if it merely looks like a Modigliani, is worthless.
The only lapse in “The Great Believers” is the way Fiona’s search for her daughter, while compelling in and of itself, is somewhat diminished by the parallel story set several decades earlier. One sees what Makkai is doing. Her method descends from Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” (yes, a grand comparison), in which Napoleon’s advance on Moscow alternates with the more intimate stories of Russians struggling to live their lives. Tolstoy understood, perhaps better than any other writer, that history-altering events not only coincide with private events that alter individual lives but that if a narrative excludes either in favor of the other, it’s only a partial account of our vast, infinitely complicated world.
Makkai’s own attempt is entirely admirable. Both halves of her narrative are about senseless loss and the efforts to survive and, if possible, redress that loss. Both are about love’s power and love’s limitations. Their juxtaposition reminds us that even an epidemic of unfathomable proportions doesn’t banish a desperate mother and her vanished child from the sphere of our attention.
Nor are the two stories unrelated in their literal events. Fiona and Claire’s shattered relationship is, in its way, another casualty of the epidemic, in that the illnesses and deaths of so many of Fiona’s friends more or less exhausted her capacity for love. It’s right to be reminded that a disease like AIDS can have such devastating, far-reaching consequences; that it can kill our loves as surely as it kills our bodies; and that its ravages extend far beyond those who are infected with the virus. And yet, in the final analysis, a mother’s search for her vanished daughter can’t really stand beside a scourge that has thus far cut down roughly 35 million people, and isn’t finished yet.
Although I can’t help wishing the two stories had worked together more potently, that doesn’t detract from the deep emotional impact of “The Great Believers,” nor does it diminish Makkai’s accomplishment. She has borne unblinking witness to history and to a horrific episode already in danger — among Americans, that is — of becoming a horror story out of the past, although more than a million people in this country are still infected with H.I.V.
I hope that won’t make Makkai’s novel sound like obligatory reading for concerned citizens. In fact, it’s an antidote to our general urge to forget what we’d rather not remember, but it’s also — which is more important — an absorbing and emotionally riveting story about what it’s like to live during times of crisis. And who among us believes that, at any point in the near future, we’ll cease living in times of crisis, whatever form they may take?
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