Who would have thought The Great American AIDS novel has finally, finally been written—and by a woman. This surprise has little to do with the relative ability of a man or a woman to write better about any given subject. Rather that the AIDS epidemic has done the most damage to the gay male population. Arguably, up until now, all the fine literature associated with it has been written by men. First and foremost perhaps Angels in America by Tony Kushner, and lesser known but great in its own right the book Was by Geoff Ryman.
Both of these works have an element of fantasy woven in. In Kushner’s case, a fluttering angel descends onto the stage. In Ryman’s, an amazing inventive back and forth through time involving America’s movie myths centering on Judy Garland. Both of these works came out a while ago, in a time perhaps when writing something straight-forward with a conventional beginning, middle, and end was just not possible. We as a culture—and our writers—were too close to the drama of the epidemic. In my view, more realistic works like The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer are too full of self-reverential anger to rise to the high art of the epidemic.
But now comes The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Makkai is a 40-year-old woman who is really too young to have lived through the worst of the epidemic’s time. She is a writer who has known the effects of the AIDS epidemic only tangentially. And yet she brings it back with all the urgency and sadness and unfairness that people were feeling in the 80’s. Reading her magnificent novel brought me back to my 20’s. One’s 20’s should be blissful and youthful. However, it was a decade marked by a prolonged terror of contracting the disease and dying. Luckily I survived.
The Great Believers centers around a group of promising young men in Chicago, most of whom, despite their best efforts to stay healthy, succumb to illness. The action rotates between the late 80’s when most of the men die and 2015 when a sister of one of the early casualties, is trying to find her missing daughter. And it’s the twenty-five year span between present day and past day that gives the novel its scope and its power.
A Key Point
Reading Makkai’s novel makes one realize something important. A book that took place entirely in the distant past of the epidemic, in 1988, would need a future viewpoint from which to look back. Neither Kushner, nor Ryman had this advantage when they were writing their works. Perhaps written more conventionally than the work of her predecessors, Makkai’s more traditional narrative is nevertheless devastating.
I highly, highly recommended this book as a year-end read.