When you hear a particularly eerie or scary story as a child, your consciousness is muddled, but your senses are heightened: you hear every creak and you wonder about every shadow on the window.
After finishing Rebecca Makkai’s new novel, The Great Believers—a fictional account of the AIDS crisis in 1980s Chicago—I took a walk around Lakeview, the place where I live and where much of the book takes place. I had the same muddled and heightened feelings I had as a child. Streets I’d walked a thousand times now gave me goosebumps. Who had come here before and where had they gone? And what spirits, amongst the old three-flats and new Starbucks, were left behind?
Although the book is many things—an examination of grief’s toll on an individual, a meditation on art’s ability to shape memory, and an intimate look at families, both biological and chosen—it is, ultimately, a ghost story. Each chapter alternates between 1985 and 2015. It’s not a spoiler to say that most of the men present in 1985 are gone in 2015. This form creates a continually haunting presence; the ’80s chapters are populated with the walking dead. Like most effective and affecting ghost stories, Makkai’s story injects an otherworldly sense into ordinary life.
Perhaps that’s fitting. The advent of the AIDS crisis had all the trappings of a demonic curse. Chicago’s first case of HIV was diagnosed in July 1981. The virus focused on gay men and drug users initially. Needless to say, these groups were seen as problems and not priorities by Chicago officials. City and county funding for care was limited and Cook County Hospital had a chronically understaffed AIDS unit. At one point they tried to cut the number of beds allotted to HIV/AIDS patients from 30 to 15—a paltry number for an area filled with thousands of infected and dying men each day. By 1985, the point where Makkai starts her novel, the crisis had reached the public (i.e., heterosexual) consciousness and the Tribune was writing about a mom worrying if “her little girl was going to get AIDS because she skinned her knee on a sidewalk in [Boystown].”
I was struck by Makkai’s recreation of the lost world of gay Chicago in the 1980s. Wrigley Field and the Hancock Tower do not mark these pages. Part of the book takes place in Paris of 2015, with references to Montmartre, the Pompidou Center, and islands in the Seine. The Chicago chapters don’t lack for landmarks, but they’re striking in their unfamiliarity. Places like the Belmont Rocks (the gay beach of its day) and the Bistro and Paradise dance clubs (“Brace yourself: It’s a Walmart now,” one character tells another), which, as the historian Owen Keehan has said, “symbolize our right to exist,” no longer exist themselves. Those community sites are now gone, and the men who gathered there are almost all gone as well. The AIDS crisis irrevocably reshaped the literal landscape of cities like New York, San Francisco, and Chicago as well.
The novel helpfully shows us the sorts of people who would have populated and patronized these spots. Yale Tishman, a fundraiser for Northwestern University’s art museum, is the focus of the 1980s chapters. He is surrounded by friends who are actors, attorneys, journalists, cartoonists, and students.
Yale hopes to secure the donation of several paintings from the 1910s and ’20s by prominent artists like Modigliani and other, lesser-known ones. Nora, an elderly Wisconsin woman, currently owns much of the art. She spent her youth in Paris before and after World War I. As Nora recounts her story to Yale—ostensibly to help authenticate the donated paintings—she shares her own tale of lost love with a French artist. She stills holds on to memories of him even though the war kept them apart.
Fiona, the younger sister of an early AIDS victim, and a dedicated friend to this group of men, witnessed her own lost generation. She holds that trauma not in her bones, but in her muscles; it’s a twitchy and propulsive portrait. Makkai describes a woman whose grief seems to animate her thoughts while consuming her needs. Toward the end of the book, Fiona, surprised after seeing an old acquaintance from the ’80s, feels not so much relieved as exhausted:
…All my memories of him, they were mine. One of the weirdest things about seeing him again was that something left me. Some kind of energy. Like the air whooshing out of a balloon.
The staggering amount of gay death from the 1980s still shocks me to the core. Floors of hospitals like Advocate and St. Joseph’s were taken over by HIV/AIDs patients. But it’s equally painful to imagine what could have been. We will never read books by brilliant authors, or be taught by inspirational teachers, or roll our eyes at often-told tales of late nights at dark bars. For sharing the stories of men of that time, readers owe Makkai a debt of gratitude.
Perhaps that’s its most queer element. The Great Believers commemorates not so much achievement (though survival was an achievement in itself), but the struggle for it. The men of that time in Chicago, New York, other big cities, and country towns should be memorialized—“as every beginning they’d ever represented, every promise,” as Yale ruminates about his friends. The poet Tom Gunn wrote of AIDS deaths as unfinished statues with “eyes glaring from raw marble, in a pose/Languorously part-buried in the block.” The lost generation of gay men will forever exist between the promise they held and the remnants they left behind, part-buried and still haunting us.
Both in her acknowledgments at the end of the book and in interviews since, Makkai has been careful to note her sensitivity, as a straight woman, in telling the stories of a diverse set of gay men. Her obvious commitment to researching the time and seeking out stories from survivors and caregivers is evident in the details of the story. And perhaps it takes someone who has witnessed the missing to describe them to people who never have.
And such a witness is needed. Our current national life has a sense of almost farcical horror. During the rise of AIDS in the 1980s, President Reagan punished gay men by remaining silent. Our current president blames immigrants for “infecting” our country and finds political opportunity by attacking a group of people already disdained by many for being “illegal.” He rants about everything, nonstop, and with his predecessor’s desire to shame, target, and attack. Both in the book and in reality, the pushback to panic shown by AIDS activists (many of them living with the disease) serves as a model for today’s activism because of their radical demand to be seen not as an infection, but as humans and kindred spirits.
The Great Believers offers both revelations and reminders. Makkai has written a book that challenges us to remember “every beginning, every promise” of life, if only for the people who weren’t permitted to complete those beginnings or fulfill those promises. Sometimes it takes a ghost story to remind us why we’re alive.
Carr Harkrader is a writer and educator living in Chicago. He works for a nonprofit where he writes and designs online educational resources and content. Originally from North Carolina, he is often the slowest talker amongst any group of Northerners. He enjoys both crappy reality tv and literary fiction, while often not really grasping the meaning of either.