“It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always temporary.”
by Grant Cousineau
In the 1980s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic exploded. Then it fell from the public’s awareness until 1998 with The Berlin Patient. Timothy Ray Brown was diagnosed with HIV, and through a stem cell transplant was declared cured by 2008. However, the transplant was considered risky, potentially fatal, and therefore never replicated.
News about a cure faded again until this year when we learned about The London Patient, an anonymous HIV patient who underwent rigorous chemotherapy, two bone marrow transplants, and is now in remission. Now, there’s finally hope.
Rebecca Makkai’s landmark novel and National Book Award Finalist The Great Believers revisits the bleak and forgotten 1980s, taking us back to the whirlwind of fear and death that consumed America. She plants us firmly in the center of the crisis during the era of the Cold War and the Challenger space shuttle disaster. It was a time when Steven Spielberg reduced the lesbian plotline in The Color Purple to a meager kiss.
Gay men “flew home for Thanksgiving to play straight for nieces and nephews, to assure their grandparents they were dating, no one special.” Some got married and lived heterosexual lives, trying not to be caught “stuffing a man into the closet when his wife dashed back for her Chanel clutch.” Some were publicly shamed for holding hands, others beaten in alleys. Families disowned their sons. Many men were dying by their early thirties. Gay communities shrank around these men like a noose.
Makkai’s immersive story opens with such a death: Nico. His family has chosen not to let his lover and life partner attend. Instead, Nico’s gay friends and allies hold their own memorial. Yale Tishman arrives at the gathering, happily involved with Charlie, a British man who publishes a pro-LGBTQ magazine and advocates for safe-sex awareness. They cling to their monogamy out of both love and fear.
Yale is close with Nico’s little sister, Fiona, an LGBTQ ally who’s walked away from her family. He’s also the development director for the Brigg Gallery at Northwestern University, and because of this, Fiona connects him with her great-aunt Nora, wishing to donate over $2 million worth of art from her time spent in Paris in the 1920s. This acquisition promises to be the crowning achievement of Yale’s still-young career, if only he can work around the protests of Nora’s family who are appalled at the idea of losing such a large inheritance.
Makkai conjures the necessary emotional depth and despair of the AIDS-epidemic era by employing stark, wartime imagery. In talking to people who pretend to sympathize with AIDS victims, Fiona finds herself speechless:
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?
Makkai also deftly threads Yale’s story with that of another that takes place in 2015, where Fiona’s daughter has disappeared after joining a cult. Fiona flies to Paris to find her daughter, staying with an old Chicago friend and hiring a private investigator who might help save her from becoming severed from yet another tier of her family tree.
As much as The Great Believers is about those who died, it’s also an aching tale of the guilt attached to surviving. Fiona carries the weight of all her lost friends, those she spoke up for and protested alongside. These ghosts never leave her as she wonders how one ought to properly remember them: “When someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory – letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it?”
Beyond Makkai’s ambitious premise and spellbinding prose, there’s an important parallel here: between the fear caused by the epidemic and those fomented by modern terrorism, violence, and intolerance. Similarly, she argues that these problems should not be seen as generational. They ought not be ignored. Makkai asks, who will help the helpless? Are we the good people we believe we are, who live kindly, returning lost wallets, embracing those who need our help? When the time comes, will we stand against injustice? And when we do these things, will they be enough to make a difference?
Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Great Believers, The Hundred-Year House, and The Borrower, as well as the short story collection Music for Wartime. Her short fiction won a 2017 Pushcart Prize and was chosen for The Best American Short Stories in four consecutive years. She will be at the Brown County Central Library auditorium on Sunday, April 28th at 2:00 p.m.