Book Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

July 19, 2018

The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai’s magnificent new novel, opens at a funeral. More specifically, it opens at a funeral party. The actual funeral, for a young man named Nico Marcus, is unfolding concurrently twenty miles north: it’s 1985, and Nico is dead from AIDS, and his family has made it abundantly clear that his lover and tight-knit circle of friends are unwelcome at the church where he is being laid to rest.

About halfway through the night, one of Nico’s closest friends, Yale Tishman, is overcome with emotion and retreats upstairs to collect himself. When he emerges, some thirty minutes later, he is greeted by a surreal sight: the party has been abruptly abandoned. Half-drunk bottles and cocktail glasses are scattered throughout the room; the vinyl record spins in silence. Both doors are dead-bolted. As an unsettled Yale wanders the empty house, searching for his friends:

…the foggy, ridiculous idea came to him that the world had ended, that some apocalypse had swept through and forgotten only him. He saw no bobbing heads in neighbors’ windows…at the end of the block, the traffic signal turned from green to yellow to red. He heard the vague rush of cars far away, but that could have been wind, couldn’t it? Or even the lake. Yale hoped for a siren, a horn, a dog, an airplane across the night sky. Nothing.

It’s a startling scene to open with, a moment whose eeriness seems more suited to the post-apocalypse of Station Eleven or an episode of The Twilight Zone. Yet The Great Believers is, in fact, about an apocalypse of sorts: the AIDS crisis of the mid-’80s and early-’90s, of which Nico is the first victim in Yale’s group of friends but certainly not the last. By the time the novel ends, this opening chapter will have assumed the weight of prophecy, a harbinger of the “slow-motion tsunami” rising to sweep away the lives of thousands of men. It will leave behind a landscape of empty rooms and deserted streets, unfinished lives, a ghost town spanning the entire world.

*       *       *

It’s hard to talk about The Great Believers without speaking in superlatives. With this, her fourth book, Makkai has crafted a deeply compassionate character study that is also a genuine, one-more-chapter-before-bed pageturner, a sweeping historical saga that never loses sight of its emotional core. Makkai has already demonstrated in her previous novels and sublime short fiction an uncanny ability to summon whole characters with little more than a well-placed adjective, to turn entire plots on a dime. What makes The Great Believers so riveting is the scope of its narrative, which stretches across decades and continents without so much as a superfluous adjective. The world Makkai conjures is at once sprawling and airtight, its narrative so elegantly constructed you forget it’s constructed at all. Its surprises—and there are many—arrive with the force of fate.

Fitting, because questions of fate are central here. (Or rather, fate interrupted.) The novel, which begins in 1985 with Nico’s funeral, is centered around Yale, who leads what, in other circumstances, would be a happy life in Chicago: he has recently been hired by a small art gallery at Northwestern University to help grow their collection, and his boyfriend Charlie, with whom he has tested negative for AIDS, is the editor of a local gay-rights newspaper. But as Yale himself observes, it’s hard to be happy when you’re 31 years old and all your friends are dying. “This disease has magnified all our mistakes,” he explains. “Some stupid thing you did when you were nineteen, the one time you weren’t careful. And it turns out that was the most important day of your life.”

Hemmed in by helplessness, Yale throws himself into his work as a distraction from the carnage unfolding around him. His search eventually leads him to the door of an elderly widow named Nora, who claims to possess an impressive collection of original artwork from the 1920s. As Yale courts her into donating her collection to the university—navigating her petty, homophobic family in the process—Nora regales with him with tales of her youth in Paris, where she was a student at the outbreak of WWI. Her stories gradually reveal a haunting parallel with Yale’s AIDS-ravaged Chicago, especially when Nora relates the scene of post-war Paris:

It was a ghost town. Some of those boys were dear friends…I could tell you their names, but it wouldn’t mean a thing to you. If I told you Picasso died in the war, you’d understand. But I tell you Jacques Weiss died at the Somme, and you don’t know what to miss…Every time I’ve gone to a gallery, the rest of my life, I’ve thought about the works that weren’t there. Shadow-paintings, you know, that no one can see but you.

Nora’s devotion to these lost friends and lovers, whose artwork comprises her collection, forms the basis of The Great Believers’ central question. What responsibility do the living have to the dead? How should we honor the memory of those we’ve lost, those we’ve had the luck—or the horror—of outliving? This question also provides a bridge to the novel’s second narrative, which is set in Paris in 2015 and follows Nico’s sister, Fiona, as she searches for her daughter, who vanished years earlier after joining a cult. Fiona, who dedicated herself to caring for her brother and his friends as a teenager, has been wracked by survivor’s guilt ever since, the ghosts of her youth beside her at every step. In one fantasy, “[Nico] was Rip Van Winkle and it was her job to explain the modern world. He was following her all around…ordering food with her off the iPad at the pizza counter, jumping at the autoflush toilet, reading the scroll at the bottom of CNN and asking what Bitcoin was.”

This plotline, which involves a private detective, an act of terrorism, and a score of revelations—not to mention a thirty-year time jump—lies an ambitious distance from its sibling narrative. And yet through the strength and balance of Makkai’s exquisite prose, it works. Like Lisa Halliday’s recent Asymmetry, which made a point of keeping its sections apart, The Great Believers is thankfully short on manufactured drama, its narratives linked instead by the book’s major themes: the unfathomability of love; the fracturing and mending of family; the ways we persevere even as the world coldly interrupts our lives, throwing the stories we think we’re telling wildly off course. Like the movements of a symphony, separate yet locked in conversation, these narratives reflect and inform each other, building towards a profoundly moving emotional payoff. And in doing so, the book provides an answer of sorts to its own question about the living and the dead. For it is not enough to remember that they died, these young casualties of war and disease. We must also remember that they lived: lives of joy and passion and true, unadulterated love. We must read their stories and we must share them with others and we must build them testaments like this one, great towering works to the sky.

Reviewed by Will Preston

Publication date: June 19, 2018

Publisher: Viking


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