The Great Believers is Moving But Falls Short of Its Hype

The Great Believers (2018)
Rebecca Makkai
Viking, 432 pages.

Rebecca Makkai is a fine wordsmith. At her best, she’s also a superb storyteller. Structure and consistency are other matters altogether. I’ll return to these, but first let’s look at the tales she tells.

The Great Believers toggles between 1985 and 2015. The first date was the height of the AIDS crisis, two years before AZT was widely available and longer still until it and other drugs were affordable and safe. An estimated 325,000 gay men died during the worst days of the crisis, prompting activists to compare AIDS to the Black Death of the Middle Ages. New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were hardest hit by AIDS. Makkai instead takes us to Chicago, which had its own “Boystown” subculture of bars, clubs, bathhouses, and casual sex. Soon it too was hollowed out by AIDS as surely as if it were a warzone.  

Makkai tells this part of her story through a large cast of gay men—too many in my estimation—before the focus narrows. We meet the ironically named Yale, as he and several other characters are Northwestern grads. He works in a gallery seeking to be taken seriously and is the long-term partner of Charlie, the editor of Out Loud, a leading gay newspaper that advocates safe sex. Caution wasn’t what some Boystown residents wanted to hear; several worried that the bathhouse culture they built would crumble to nothingness. In many ways, though, the main character isn’t present. Nico Marcus is among the first to die of AIDS and Makkai uses him as the pivot around which others rotate: his black partner Terrence; his friends Teddy, Bill, and Richard Campo, a famed photographer; and Nico’s grieving sister, Fiona, who takes on the role of caregiver to the dying. There is also Julian, who is the Typhoid Mary of AIDS.

That’s quite a few characters and to it we add gallery staff, especially Cicely Pearce. Makkai interjects another story atop her AIDS drama: that of Fiona’s dying Aunt Nora who wishes to donate art work to the gallery. Her stash was collected when she lived in Paris in the 1920s and was the lover of little known painter Ranko Novak. The biggest obstacle is Nora’s family, who thinks she should sell it. In a moment of candor, though, Nora tells Yale she chose him because Paris in the 1920s was also a warzone of grief and death.  

What we learn from the 2015 part of the book is that Fiona is really the main character of the novel. Thirty years on, she is divorced and estranged from her daughter Claire, who disappeared into a cult in the 1990s­ and severed all ties with her family. Fiona thinks she might be in Paris and goes there to see if she can find her. This works for Makkai’s circular structure. That is, if you buy into the idea that Nora’s Paris of the 1920s and Fiona’s of 2015 is a clean connect-the-dots dual mystery. Another point of view might call this contrivance. That particular judgment is bolstered by the all-too-neat reappearance of key 1980s figures. I’m less bothered by this—most novelists resolve plots through coincidences that seldom occur in real life—than I am that the 2015 story feels thin compared to the moving 1985 sections.  

There is also the question of equivalency. I don’t wish to diminish the trauma of a mother’s attempt to track down a wayward offspring, but Claire’s voluntary absence hardly compares with the involuntary carnage of Boystown. Some might say it cheapens the latter. Makkai’s idea of taking us from crisis to post-crisis to new crisis was a good one, but there is a palpable sense that these themes were clearer in Makkai’s mind than upon the page. I often felt as if I was reading a novella within a novel that could have easily been a postscript. In like fashion, the book’s resolution—a sort of resignation—can be read as either honest or forced. We are to infer that war (broadly defined) victimizes randomly and leaves guilt-ridden survivors in its wake.

The Great Believers is about trauma and tragedy, loss and gain, surrender and perseverance. Muse upon this as you contemplate the book’s purposefully ambiguous title. I admired the book more than I liked it. It is overly long and could have lost 100 pages or so by cutting extraneous characters and threads. The first third is especially confusing until you sort out who is central and who is just passing through. I nearly gave up several times. I was glad I forged ahead, as parts of the book are deeply affecting, but I won’t join those who have praised it to the skies. It’s a good book, but it falls short of its hype.

Rob Weir         

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