There is so much that I want to tell you about this book, but I won’t. I took so many notes, and placed so many scraps of paper between pages, but I do not want to ruin a single realization for you. Rebecca Makkai has crafted an intricately woven tapestry that you have to witness in its full glory; I do not want to give you a magnifying glass before you have had a chance to first witness the enormity of the project. The Great Believers hits hard and strikes deep. It overflows with righteous anger, hopeless love, and effervescent hope.
But when someone’s gone and you’re the primary keeper of his memory—letting go would be a kind of murder, wouldn’t it? I had so much love for him, even if it was a complicated love, and where is all that love supposed to go? He was gone, so it couldn’t change, it couldn’t turn to indifference. I was stuck with all that love.
Makkai covers so much; the story alternates between the 1980s and 2015, but it spans far more than just those 35 years. In Chicago, in the 1980s, the AIDS crisis tears through the gay community. We begin with a funeral; it is the first for this small group of friends, but it is not the first for the gay community. The friends, lovers, and family members will ebb and flow around each other. Every connection is both permanent and tenuous. Some will thrive, some will survive, but many will sink under the injustice and indifference of the US response to the AIDS crisis. Makkai, who did not experience the crisis first-hand, gave a thoughtful statement in her post-script author’s note:
This project was undertaken with a great deal of ongoing thought and conversation and concern about the line between allyship and appropriation—a line that might feel different to different readers. It is my great hope that this book will lead the curious to read direct, personal accounts of the AIDS crisis—and that any places where I’ve gotten the details wrong might inspire people to tell their own stories.
She treats the characters with great care, giving fully-realized lives to the people who embody the story. She speaks of grief, guilt, and survival. Characters who straddle both eras of the story are working their way through the mires of blame and shame. Her characters are messy, lived-in, and real. Again, I want to fill this piece with quote after quote, but I cannot rob you of the slow bloom of realization and connection that unfurls throughout the pages. The Goldfinch attempted similar statements on loss, trauma, art, and survivor’s guilt. I felt preached-to and bored by The Goldfinch, but here I was filled with righteous empathy.
Both sides of the story are bound together by a survivor of the Lost Generation; she’s an oracle, a witness, and the last torch bearer. She sees the same thing in the young people around her. She has gifts for them, but the gifts are both a sharing and an acknowledgement of burden.
Because you’ll understand: It was a ghost town. Some of those boys were dear friends, I’d studied next to them for two years. I’d run around with them, doing all the ridiculous things you do when you’re young. If I told could tell you their names, but it wouldn’t mean a thing to you. If I told you you Picasso died in the war, you’d understand. Poof, there goes Guernica. But I tell you Jacques Weiss died at the Somme, and you don’t know what to miss. It-you know what, it prepared me for being old. All my friends are dying, or they’re dead already, but I’ve been through it before.
I did not cry until I finished the author’s note; while this account is fiction, there were countless members of the gay community murdered by the indifference, misplaced fear, and general bigotry surrounding the response to the AIDS crisis who did not get a chance to tell their own stories.