I’d not encountered the writing of Rebecca Makkai, until her new novel “The Great Believers”, which is a rare novel dealing with the advent of the AIDS crisis in l980’s Chicago. This highly sensitive account of the lives of a number of young gay men in Chicago, all more or less just starting their post-collegiate careers, feels epic in scale yet intensely intimate and personal concurrently. Makkai focuses primarily on the life of one of her central gay male characters, Yale Tishman (Yale having been shortened/WASPified from the Hebrew name Yael). Tishman has just landed a job at Northwestern, helping to build a university gallery by procuring a collection of paintings from l920s Paris, owned by an elderly woman who once lived there and modeled for artists such as Modigliani, and, in trade for her modeling, got works of art from them, and she’s usually the model. This woman had her one great love in Paris, with a minor artist whose work is included in the collection, and, by understanding Tishman’s own personal struggle(s) with being allowed to love publicly (or not, as a gay man), their personal narratives parallel each other’s. How this collection comes to the gallery is a fascinating sub-theme of the novel.
The main other female character–there are really three that are highlighted–is Fiona, the sister of one of Tishman’s male gay friends, who’s been thrown out of his comfortable suburban existence because he is gay, and Fiona helps him to survive with food and money filched from her parents’ house; she also becomes friends with her brother Nico’s gay friends, and Nico’s the first to die of AIDS in this increasingly frightening and haunting novel. In a secondary plot, Fiona, as an adult, having lived through the deaths of all her brother’s friends and often being their primary caregiver–the AIDS wards of area hospitals are brutally rendered in this novel–also had a baby literally in the same hospital, the same day, in which Tishman himself is dying. The daughter becomes a runaway later, and these two plots intertwine as Fiona is torn in half by the deaths of her brother and friends and her attempts to be a mother at the same time. These story lines may sound melodramatic, but they’re presented in quite the opposite manner; sometimes Makkai’s novel feels much like journalism (one wonders if the writer is some version of Fiona).
Makkai does not spare us from the infidelities and relationships, both lasting and broken, amongst these gay men, and ’80s Chicago was a time when being gay publicly was still not accepted, and the men often are full of shame; Makkai works that dialectic admirably throughout the book. But if the reader compares his/her own heterosexual life from that time (if you’re old enough), the idea that any sexual encounter might end up in death was not the normative narrative for heterosexuals, and the randomness with which AIDS hits everyone (but one, in the end) of these male friends is like reading about The Bubonic Plague in European medieval times. When Ingrid Sischy, Editor of ArtForum in the ’80s, did her last issue as editor, in a time when AIDS was decimating so many men in the arts in New York, she presented the idea that America was, indeed, much like Medieval times, as dying by thirty presumed that one was middle-aged at fifteen, and the compressed timeline of life became Sischy’s main theme in her last year as editor of that art/metaphysics magazine.
Makkai is both sympathetic and empathetic with her characters, and they are rendered admirably, flaws and all, but losing one’s life in the blush of early adulthood is much her theme; the two plots will come together in the end, at an art show in Paris, which is nicely done. This is an important novel, and deserves a wide audience.