The Great Believers
“We were the great believers.
I have never cared for any men as much as for these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “My Generation”
A striking epitaph for Rebecca Makkai’s latest novel, The Great Believers about . . . .
Imagine a mysterious virus suddenly besetting a population. The illness itself sets those people apart, publically identifies them. It hits with impunity, across all ethnicities and age groups. At first no one knows how it is spread . . . they have an idea formed from fear and panic, prejudices and assumptions. A mixing of fluids. And, because this population is somewhat small, though no one knows exactly because it can sometimes be hard to tell, and marginalized, the rest of the world carries on. Years later as the outcry grows for treatment, a vaccine, more is done to stop the spread, to help those infected to live with the disease.
Now imagine AIDS in the 1980s, 1990s in Chicago, in Boystown, and the fight. The battle to be heard and not die. Rebecca Makkai has tackled a huge subject and brought us deep inside characters who lived and died during that time.
She uses a braided narrative jumping between principally 1985 and 2015 with a character named Fiona who acts as a witness. She lived through the impact and the aftermath with great buckets of survival guilt, investing all her energies into trying to fix something bigger than herself. To be the last one in the hospital room soothing, holding a hand.
The novel encompasses a broad swath of history up to and including the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. But it is this feeling, of a generation lost, misunderstood, cast aside that she dwells in, beginning with those living in artist enclaves in Paris after the First World War. We follow a couple as they struggle with artistic ambition and shell-shock, gender bias and inequality. The author connects that group with those living on society’s fringes in Boystown, a gay enclave in Chicago.
I came to Chicago in 1982, right as Reagan was inaugurated. Who knew what was up ahead. I was a recent college grad on the cusp of my own great adventure. As news of a new infection spread I sought to sort the hype from the facts. Sin from science. By the time I married in 1986 there was a test and all those filing for a marriage license were required to take the test. I am ashamed to admit the numbers of people dying was not in my purview. I only know that a few years later I volunteered to work a table at an AIDS Walk fundraiser. Thousands of people signed up, most had been directly affected by loss of a friend or loved one.
The world of art and entertainment has certainly borne the brunt of those loses.
Rebecca Makkai has written a great historical novel that allows us to feel the pain and urgency of that time, that long stormy summer.