Friday, October 9, 2009
For a long time there was a gap in my literary education: I had never read a book by hardcore libertarian capitalist and right-wing heartthrob Ayn Rand. Rand's reputation as a monomaniacal, arrogant, neo-Nietzschian Fascist had scared me off, as did my confusion over how her first name is pronounced, but during a recent period of intense boredom I decided to check out her 1,000-page masterwork, Atlas Shrugged. The book is very solidly constructed, in terms of binding, and the font is quite readable, but the really impressive thing is that this hunk of a book has sold millions of copies and 200,000 in the past year alone.
That's an impressive number because for a book about capitalism, Atlas Shrugged doesn't seem very commercial—there's no humor, very little action, and hundreds of pages are devoted to outlining Rand's philosophy of “Objectivism,” which all of her heroes conveniently believe in. The plot can be outlined thusly: a group of ultra-competent industrialists who enjoy rough sex and making long, self-righteous speeches bring the United States—which is run by sniveling socialists—to its knees by refusing to share their expertise with others. The villains are all nasty, petty bureaucrats with unsatisfying sex lives, and the heroes are all superlative in at least one thing, especially superlative superlative leader-man John Galt, who is like Superman, if Superman didn't fight crime and was really good at public speaking and engineering instead of having powers.
Rand gets criticized sometimes for having unrealistic characters, and she even brings this up in a short afterword: “I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don't exist. That this book has been written—and published—is proof that they do.” I'm not sure I follow that logic, but I've never seen why “realistic” characters are good in and of themselves anyway. I wasn't offended, either, by her relentless free market philosophy, and I actually started enjoying her somewhat deranged use of language after I started to regard it as high camp (see below). The reasons, in my mind, that Atlas Shrugged sucks are more basic: 1) it's lazy and 2) it's mean.
First, the laziness: Atlas Shrugged is set in an alternative universe where all the countries of the world are “people's states,” and the USA seems to have a tradition of opposing industrialists, to the extent that an early railroad tycoon in the novel has to fight in order to get a bridge across the Mississippi built. What happened in the world of the novel to change world history so drastically? I have no idea. I have no idea what year it's supposed to be set in. I think the US still has a republican political system, because a “legislature” is mentioned once or twice, and I have to assume that the Civil War occurred in this universe, although there don't seem to be any black people or any minorities in this America. The are also no children, and no animals, except for a few goats who are killed by a sound ray (this actually happens). There is no opposition political party, no tension between countries, and no churches, which is odd given the book's anti-Christian messages. Even though it was written during and after World War Two, there's no sense of engagement with all of the horrors that that era dredged up, except for the sound ray sort of resembling nuclear weapons, but not really. There is definitely no comic relief, but Rand can be forgiven for that, since she had never heard the term.
These things are not in Atlas Shrugged because they don't serve Rand's goal of describing Objectivism in the grandest, most heroic-sounding terms possible. Racism and nuclear weapons and humor and political infighting might be the things that defined America when Rand was writing (and since), but they would just confuse the message Rand has in mind, so she cuts them out. Similarly, the only way to portray industrialists as oppressed underdogs fighting The Man is to turn America into the Soviet Union, so that's what Rand does. And unlike most alternate-universe writers who spend time fleshing out and exploring the world's they create, Rand leaves her world barren of local color, so you get the impression her United States is empty wasteland with a few factories and towns scattered about, and the population of New York is about 100.
The best example of her laziness comes late in the book, when the superlatives have gathered in a valley that they've turned into a utopia because they didn't have any government bureaucrats around. John Galt has invented a motor that is powered by energy from the air (whatever) and consequently, doesn't need much oil. Fine. But then superlative oilman Wyatt Ellis shows Dagny Taggert, the heroine, his oil pump, which, he brags, produces “200 barrels a day.” What are they possibly using the oil for? These are supposed to be hardcore free market capitalists--who would buy oil when they get free energy? Most likely, Rand assumed no one would be paying attention to the details of her world, and didn't pay any attention to them herself.
But as an occasional reader of schlock science-fiction, I'm used to sloppily-planned worlds. What I'm not used to is the sheer meanness of Rand's characterization. Rand didn't believe in “determinism of any kind,” which means, essentially, that every bad thing that happens to someone is their own fault. That's the theme of an ugly passage describing a train wreck where the passengers, including young mothers and teachers, are blamed for contributing to society's problems, and therefore deserving of death. Then there's the bits where the small-town people are too lazy to take rotting vegetables out of the sun, or too stupid to give directions to a nearby factory. Because, you see, people are helpless without the superlatives! They have no direction in life without factory owners telling them what to do! Rand's lazy world-building can be excused, maybe, if you think her message is worthwhile, but portraying the masses as dumb, helpless wretches in need of guidance is pretty inexcusable—this was written after Mussolini and Hitler, remember.
Atlas Shrugged is not a “good novel” by any definition of either of those words, but I will say that it had three features I enjoyed. First, it can be used as a brick-like weapon; second, her character names are fun to say; third, her prose sometimes gets so bizarre that it achieves a sort of camp-like quality. At the risk of making a long post longer, here are some excerpts, which I hope will keep people away from the rest of the text. Enjoy!
“They knew that copper wire was a vanishing commodity more precious than gold or honor.”
“The smile of a man of the world who used it, not to cover his words, but to stress the audacity of expressing a sincere emotion.”
“Her stomach protruded under the gown's thin cloth, with that loose obscenity of manner which assumes all self-revelation to be ugliness and makes no effort to conceal it.”
“She saw the look of the luminous gaiety which transcends the great innocence of a man who has earned the right to be light-hearted.”
“The body, not of a chariot driver, but of a builder of airplanes.”
“His glance was now like the hands of a man hanging over an abyss, groping frantically for the slightest fissure of doubt, but slipping on the clean, polished rock of her face.”
“The art shows, where she saw the kind of drawings she had seen chalked on any pavement of her childhood slums—the novels, that purported to prove the futility of science, industry, civilization and love, using language that her father would not have used in his drunkenest moments—the magazines that propounded cowardly generalities, less clear and more stale than...” (Italics are mine, and I cut it off here because it goes on like this.)