In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers is an engrossing multi-generational exploration of the AIDS crisis and its lasting effects on families.
Booklist wrote of the book:
“With its broad time span and bedrock of ferocious, loving friendships, [The Great Believers] might remind readers of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life…though it is, overall, far brighter than that novel. As her intimately portrayed characters wrestle with painful pasts and fight to love one another and find joy in the present in spite of what is to come, Makkai carefully reconstructs 1980s Chicago, WWI-era and present day Paris, and scenes of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. A tribute to the enduring forces of love and art, over everything.”
The Great Believers is about AIDS in Chicago, and it’s about someone looking back on that time from modern-day Paris. In other words, it’s about loss and survival and memory—sentiments probably better expressed in a three-minute song than a four-hundred-page novel. That didn’t stop me from trying. There’s a lot of music in the book—songs referenced or listened to or sung along to—and while some of that music doesn’t speak to the book’s themes (Billy Joel’s “Always a Woman,” anybody?) plenty of it was the music I myself heard as I wrote. I write in silence, as I don’t want lyrics chewing up any of the linguistic part of my brain, but I’ve never in my life been without a song playing in my head. Here are a few of them.
“America,” by Simon and Garfunkel
I was at an artists’ residency during the 2014 election, an election that did not go very well, and the next morning another writer posted “America” on Facebook in response. I wasn’t totally preoccupied with politics (ahhhh, 2014), and so the song spoke instead to the novel-writing part of my mind, the part that was just starting to grapple with my opening scene. I didn’t know anything yet about the man whose memorial would start the book, but I decided this was his favorite song, this anti-anthem, this song of wandering and yearning, of being young and lost. I built him from there, and I built the scene around this song being played at the memorial. In the early days of writing, when the book was still a slippery thing that would sometimes evade my grasp, I’d watch the video of Simon and Garfunkel playing that song in Central Park, and boom, I’d be back in the world of my story.
“Pie Jesu,” by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Webber’s requiem was new in 1985, and this felt like the right piece for a 1986 funeral. It was written for a soprano, and made famous by Sarah Brightman’s recording with boy soprano Paul Miles-Kingston, but in my novel it’s Yale’s secret crush, Asher, who sings it. Asher is all voice throughout the book—protesting, speechifying, pontificating—and so it made sense to me that he’d be a singer, too. I put in that he was a classically trained baritone, which suggested to me a depth beyond all that shouting.
“You Spin Me Round,” by Dead or Alive
This is the song being blasted at the 1987 Pride parade from the float on which Yale’s ex-lover, Charlie, is tossing condoms. I found the lyrics appropriate to the way Charlie had treated Yale; Charlie is a piece of work. I’d originally had Donna Summer’s “Protection” playing here, in what would have been a cheeky nod to the condom distribution on behalf of the float organizers—but then I learned that in the late ‘80s, the gay community was livid with Donna Summer for allegedly suggesting that AIDS was a punishment from God, and never would have played her music in this context.
“Moon River,” by Mancini and Mercer
This is a song Yale was smitten with as a child, when he watched Audrey Hepburn sing it in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a song he associates (irrationally) with mothers, although he doesn’t have much of a mother himself. It’s the song he asks Fiona to sing him late in the book, and she tries, despite not knowing the words. I can’t say too much more here without giving major spoilers, but I love the wistful nature of this song, and I love the line about “two drifters, off to see the world.” Fiona will get to live on, traveling far and seeing the world, when not all of the men she looks after will.
“Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” by The Smiths
Yale is going out and dancing to Bronski Beat, but at home he’s listening to New Order and The Smiths and REM. I don’t believe I ever stipulated what particular Smiths songs he’s listening to, but in my mind it’s this one. The lyrics “the life I’ve had / Can make a good man bad” are pretty damn bleak, but appropriate to a lot of my characters and the decisions they make (or abdicate) under extreme stress. And Yale’s entire story is about both getting what he wants and losing everything he has.
“Being Boring,“ by Pet Shop Boys
I didn’t have this song in mind as I wrote, but someone online suggested recently that it was the perfect soundtrack for The Great Believers, and I think he was right. It’s about looking back on times with lost friends, it’s about caches of old photographs, and it’s about suddenly finding yourself in the future, realizing the life you knew best is now the past. If The Great Believers were ever made into a movie, I wouldn’t at all mind this playing as the credits rolled.
Rebecca Makkai and The Great Believers links:
Chicago Review of Books interview with the author
Electric Literature interview with the author
Largehearted Boy playlist by the author for Music for Wartime
Los Angeles Times interview with the author
WBEZ interview with the author
WBUR interview with the author
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 – ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 – 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 – 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film’s soundtracks)
weekly music release lists