Most disasters can’t be deeply understood, really felt, without a ground-level guide, and so it is with catastrophic events portrayed in novels — one character’s experience summons empathy in a way that statistics, however horrific, can’t.
In Rebecca Makkai’s “The Great Believers,” the disaster is the inexorable unfolding of the AIDS crisis in Chicago as experienced by two characters in the thick of it: Yale, a young gay man whose friends are dying one by one; and Fiona, the younger sister of one of those friends, Nico, whose after-funeral party opens the book.
The story alternates between Yale’s perspective in the mid-1980s and Fiona’s 30 years later as she searches for her estranged daughter Claire in Paris. For Fiona, who disowned her parents when they disowned Nico, the notion of family is as tricky and difficult as it is for the circle of gay men around her and Yale.
“Your mama took care of us all,” one of the circle’s rare survivors tells Claire, and there is a suggestion that this despairing care displaced a daughter born in grief.
Makkai is very good at conjuring a gay community enacting the usual dramas of love and lust and ambition and jealousy in a world where all the usual dramas suddenly can carry a fatal charge; where to be spared makes one “the luckiest man to stand there at the end of it all … the one left, trying to remember. The unluckiest too.”
“This disease has magnified all our mistakes,” Yale says. “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.”
There are plenty of ensemble dramas out there, good ones, too. What might distinguish this one from the lot is Makkai’s focus on art and its parallels in memory. It is through Yale’s work running a gallery that we encounter Nora, a relative of Fiona’s, whose personal art collection from the period around World War I becomes a metaphor for how much of life, and in particular love, is preserved or transformed or lost over time.
It also points to one of the book’s many parallels, as Nora believes her experience of Paris after the war — “It was a ghost town” — echoes that of Yale’s in AIDS-stricken Chicago.
And in Paris again Fiona, at the photography exhibition of one other survivor, wants her daughter to know “how this show might begin to convey it all, the palimpsest that was her heart, the way things could be written over, but never erased.”
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Wisconsin. ellenakins.com
The Great Believers
By: Rebecca Makkai.
Publisher: Viking, 421 pages, $27.
Event: In conversation with Chris Jones, 7 p.m. June 25, the Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls. $10.