When the AIDS crisis begins to ravage the close-knit gay community of Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood in the mid-1980s, Yale Tishman and Fiona Marcus are already something like family. Yale, a development director at a local gallery, is on the verge of securing a career-defining art collection from the 1920s courtesy of Fiona’s great-aunt, Nora. At 90, Nora is among the last of “the Lost Generation,” once an artist’s model who sat for the likes of Amedeo Modigliani, Fernand Léger, and Tsuguharu Foujita in Paris. Nora is adamant that Yale feature Ranko Novak — her lover and the tragic figure haunting memories of her youth — alongside his more notable peers. While Yale is game, his infatuation with Nora’s collection — and story — soon takes a backseat to more immediate concerns as the web of infection and loss draws ever closer to his gay cohort. Thirty years later, Fiona finds herself in Paris, tracking down her estranged daughter. It’s perhaps the last, best shot she has at righting a lot of wrongs, but reconciling with her daughter won’t be easy. Fiona remains haunted and emotionally crippled by the plague years and their aftermath. By deftly weaving together Yale’s, Nora’s, and Fiona’s stories, Makkai finds surprising resonances across time and experience, offering a timely commentary on the price of memory and the role of art in securing legacies at risk of being lost.
In the cold light of history, all that matters is being remembered. While many of us, no doubt, would prefer to be remembered for the great things we accomplished or the generosity of our spirit, a legacy of our trauma will do in a pinch. Perhaps nobody in The Great Believers states this point so bluntly as Roman, Yale’s intern at the gallery. “Don’t you envy what Nora had?” he asks Yale. “There was so much disaster, but it was like she belonged to something, you know?” Yale is not immune to the tragic romance of Nora’s tale, but while mourning his friends and in the midst of his own AIDS panic, the best he can manage is a darkly humorous fantasy about the beauty of Romeo and Juliet dying while “puking their guts out.” Roman may be naïve and callous, but he’s not wrong. The reason why Nora hasn’t been able to jettison the memory of her Parisian milieu — and why Fiona can’t let go of the life she shared with her gay male friends in 1980s Chicago in 2015 — is that memory is all that remains of someone’s life in the absence of documented history. “[W]hen someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory,” Nora confides to Yale, “letting go would be a kind of murder.” For Nora and Fiona, documenting a history of trauma becomes the most vital act, both because of its ability to capture a historical moment for posterity and because transmuting the trauma into something tangible like a gallery show or a work of art is the only reliable way to unburden oneself from the yoke of memory.
If history unburdens us, it also has the power to preserve and validate lives that were neglected and demeaned in their present. However, achieving that security is not without its obstacles. One of the more pernicious villains in The Great Believers is Chuck Donovan, a petty trustee who also happens to be a business associate of Nora’s son, Frank. Donovan, on behalf of Frank, feels Nora’s art should remain within the family and is determined to thwart Yale’s acquisition. Some of the pieces are quite valuable and would make a good inheritance. Nora, of course, is not interested in the short-term financial benefits. Her focus remains on securing a legacy for her former lover, who would otherwise be resigned to the trash heap of history, eclipsed by his more successful contemporaries. The tension comes to a head when Yale circumvents both men and secures the collection for the gallery. Donovan confronts Yale shortly afterward. “I’ve been made a fool,” he fumes. As a trustee he feels that “[o]ne of the only rewards” he’s allowed for his “significant time and work is a bit of leverage.” For Donovan, the art is immaterial. The entire matter is simply an excuse to display dominance, and he’s prepared to exercise the full extent of his straight, rich, white, male privilege to ensure that his concerns are heard. There are parallels to our contemporary socio-political moment, of course. What Makkai captures so beautifully here, and throughout the novel, are the vastly different stakes on either side of the cultural divide. For Donovan and Frank, the collection represents a question of pride that is bound up with expectations of dominance afforded to them because of sex, race, sexuality, and social station. For Nora and Yale — both subjects of limited social and historical influence — securing the collection for the gallery is a matter of staving off oblivion. “Wasn’t that what the camera had done, at least?” Fiona reflects when looking through old photos years later in Paris. “It had frozen [her dead friends] forever,” granting them a place at the historical table that would otherwise not have existed. Yale and Nora ultimately succeed but not without paying a hefty price. Donovan’s pride emerges unscathed and he’s soon onto a new pissing match.
As with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, it’s tempting to see The Great Believers as the latest entry in the genre of straight women writing about gay male trauma. While both novels draw their dramatic verve from the suffering and untimely death of their gay protagonists, Makkai’s focus here is on recuperating the overlooked history of the women caretakers. Like countless gay and straight men and women of her generation, Fiona watched her friends succumb to plague in the face of government (and sometimes medical institutions’) indifference. The resulting PTSD, in part, explains the difficult relationship that she’s had with her own daughter. How “[a]fter the bloodbath of her twenties, after everyone she loved had died or left her,” she found it difficult to provide her daughter with the kind of love and attention that others mothers might more readily offer their children. Hopes of mending that relationship bring Fiona to France, but in the wake of the Paris terror attacks of 2015 Fiona experiences an epiphany that illustrates the unique position she’s found herself in throughout her adult life:
[S]he’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. She was a person who was finding her daughter, making things right with her daughter, and there was no room in that story for the idiocy of extreme religion, the violence of men she’d never met. Just as she’d been in the middle of a story about divorce when the towers fell in New York City, throwing everyone’s careful plans to shit. Just as she’d once been in a story about raising her own brother, growing up with her brother in the city on their own, making it in the world, where the virus and the indifference of greedy men had steamrolled through. She thought of Nora, whose art and love were interrupted by assassination and war. Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built. Why couldn’t you ever just go after your life without tripping over some idiot’s dick?
Fiona blames “stupid men and their stupid violence” for dictating the terms of her life, but horrible things happen and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Fiona was the singular, intended victim for any of the large-scale violent experiences she describes. A more accurate assessment, rather, finds blame in narratives that obfuscate the key role she has played in the traumas that have come to define her life. She’s been denied control over her own story and cannot heal until she regains that control. Makkai’s great project with The Great Believers, then, is to recuperate a place for women at the center of a historical AIDS narrative that has predominantly focused on the gay male victims and left little room for the women who also bore its heavy burden. It’s worth mentioning here, briefly, that while Makkai conducted interviews with many women caretakers while researching this novel, this is, of course, a work of fiction. Actual historical records of the contributions made by real-life Fionas remain scant.
What makes The Great Believers great is Makkai’s skill at uncovering facets of a historical record many of us may feel we already comprehensively understand. What makes it an enduring work of fiction is the elegance with which it transmutes the quotidian — a friend’s boat shoes, a passing fancy for that cute house you often pass on your way home, one of any number of political rallies you find yourself attending — into an evocative time capsule that captures the essence of an entire life. Good novels stick with us on the strength of their inventive plots or beautiful writing, but the best novels make us feel as if we’ve gained a new friend who will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Many of the men and women in Makkai’s latest don’t survive to the novel’s last page, but their memories will stick with the reader long after the cover is closed.
At the end of my spring cleaning, I tucked the 8 mm tape back into the small crate that has become a time capsule of sorts. Safe — at least for now — from the garbage. Then, I went on to do one of the thousands of everyday things I do without a second thought. As I write this now, I couldn’t tell you what that was even if I wanted to. I’ve already forgotten.
Dan Lopez is the author of The Show House, named a Best Book of 2016 by the Chicago Review of Books, and the short story collection, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can visit his website at danlopezauthor.com.