In recent years, audiences and readers have been offered glimpses into a theater of death, suffering, raw fear, and stigma attached to a disease that branded and condemned its victims. Stories about AIDS—in such works as the poetry of Marie Howe and Danez Smith, Andrew Sean Greer’s fiction, and the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, to name a few—are often framed within the scope of a singular protagonist or speaker’s experience, the victim’s or an intimate connection’s; they invite the reader to empathize with a sole psyche in a fixed timeframe. Few works attempt to cast the entire scope of the AIDS crisis, from its sinister and explosive outbreak in the 80s to its quiet aftermath echoing in our contemporary era. Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel, The Great Believers, achieves this feat powerfully. Courageous and tender, her story encompasses a range of characters whose narratives extend across three decades with life, love, and redemption.
The novel’s title, borrowed from Fitzgerald, recalls the bohemians of the Roaring Twenties’ lost generation—artists afflicted with love and torment and grasping to find place and meaning. Makkai’s work adopts this sentiment and applies it to a unique structure: while many novels straddle multiple time frames, The Great Believersis a stand-alone in that it features two equally dynamic protagonists who function almost as minor characters in each other’s stories, culminating in the end—of Makkai’s novel, not the timeline—in an honest, evocatively rendered encounter. Fiona is the custodian of the dead; in her twenties, she cared for the dying young men of Chicago, including her beloved brother, whose memorial launches the story. A once fiery, confident youth, she thrived in her role as provider and caretaker, roles she struggles to uphold in 2015 while simultaneously carrying the memories of the dead and resuscitating a relationship with her estranged grown daughter, Claire. Never able to nurture and bond with her child as she did with so many of her lost friends, she now travels to Paris to locate and possibly rescue her daughter.
Thirty years earlier, Fiona’s friend Yale Tishman, with whom the novel begins, is negotiating an art deal with Fiona’s great aunt, Nora. Like Fiona, Nora also carries relics of the past—autographed paintings and sketches, her souvenirs of past affairs with now-renowned artists from the 20s, including the love of her life. It is for him that she endows her collection to Yale to feature in the Northwestern University art gallery where he works, an endowment that is also her public monument of love. Also, like Fiona, Yale fumbles in his role preserving and heralding the past. His task is complicated by the demands of his world in which his friends are dying, his partner jealously polices his sex life, his boss dangles a seemingly willing sex bait before him, an initially unreadable coworker throws roadblocks in his professional endeavors and lifesavers in his personal life, the threat of AIDS looms on the peripheral, and a scandal at work threatens upheaval for his career, until a bigger catastrophe arises.
The bridge between these two timelines is a seemingly minor character, Richard: amateur photographer and friend to the dying boys in 1985, renowned celebrity artiste in 2015. Positioned ever in the margins of the action as the host of a memorial party, a face in a bar, Fiona’s contact in Paris who enters and exits each scene to arrange interviews and exhibits, Richard’s fleeting, teasing presence ultimately emerges as the perfect chronicler and keeper of the past, by constantly moving to make room for it. He enacts what Fiona struggles to do in preserving and recalling long-gone people and events, because he can capture the past tangibly in photographs and videos. It is also he who reveals to her a truth that shatters and rewrites her reality.
Makkai’s themes of witnessing, preserving, and rewriting the past, calls these acts into question, as they position both characters and reader to look over their shoulder with regret and longing, reminiscent of a Kazuo Ishiguro novel. The act of bearing witness also bears an enormous, isolating responsibility, not only straddling timelines when loved ones were alive and now deceased, but also dimensions in which the ghosts of Fiona’s past stand as vibrantly in her life as they did while living. “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?” (184). Seen in Yale’s dream sequence as cleaning the streets, she collects and keeps the memories as her great aunt Nora had with her paintings, as her friend Richard does with their mutual friends’ obituaries and photographs. “We’re in charge of them,” she explains, “ ... all the things we’d ever said to each other, all my memories ... they were mine” (377). Whether Makkai pronounces judgment on such possessive stewardship remains to be seen, as some characters are successful in their mission as heralders while Fiona meets constant challenge and disillusion. She knows the hard reality of life and loved ones slipping beyond her grasp. Yale, her truest friend, is emblematic of such powerful and evanescent love. It’s a bond that rivals her relationships with the living: her ex-husband, her daughter.
If the shape of Makkai’s novel could be compared to a braid in which, like the Fates, she weaves the timelines of 1985 and 2015 to converge again and again, then the third strand would be the unwritten space in between these eras, where the consequences of the past play out to affect the reality of the present. The reader never occupies this space with the surviving characters but is relayed fragments of a story filled with mistakes and regret, silences and surprises. Here the theme of rewriting the past is made possible: just as Yale once stands before a house that represents what could have been “had it not been for everything” (381), Fiona harbors regrets from parenting that she hopes to right with new opportunities; Claire similarly shares regrets about the time of her birth and entertains a rewritten origin story. The absolution of the living, coupled with Richard’s exhibit, conveys the truth that what is past is not necessarily irrevocable. It can loop, it can bring back what was lost. In the midst of grief, of gutting trauma, there is grace for those still living to reclaim and try again. Makkai’s The Great Believersresurrects the dead and reconciles the living, a celebration of life’s miracles tenderly wrought and wholeheartedly given.
Shannon Nakai is an MFA graduate of Wichita State University, a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Bacopa Literary Review, The Cincinnati Review, Midwest Review, River City Poetry, Sugared Water, Tupelo Quarterly, and 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems. A Fulbright Scholar and English instructor, she currently lives and teaches in Wichita, KS.