BOOK REVIEWS: “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand (1957 - part 2 of the review)
Yesterday I gave an introduction and synopsis, today we'll get to what it all means. Tomorrow we'll discuss "Objectivism" a bit, and that'll wrap things up for us on this novel.
I’ve got a thing for Russian Novels. I haven’t read as many of them as I’d like to have, but I really enjoy them for their singleminded lack of brevity. I love how they’ll take a concept or story and just keep on hammering at it until every possible permutation is driven home. I admire that level of completion, and I really have a thing for American-Written Russian Novels. That is, Novels written by Russian expatriates in America in the 20th century. I’ve read everything that Nabokov ever wrote in English, for instance. It’s important to remember, then, that Ayn Rand’s real name was Alisa Zonov’yevna Rosenbaum, from St. Petersburg in Tsarist Russia. This, therefore, is a Russian-American novel.
So what can I say about it that hasn’t been said a thousand times over in a half-century of obsessive scholarly study? Not much, I’m sure, especially since the book goes out of its way to be a res ipsa loquitor kind of proposition: It deliberately says all it feels there is to say about itself. Even still, it’s worth talking about.
First off, when Doubting Thomas referred to this thing as his bible, I assumed he was talking about the profound effect it had on guiding his life, not on it’s actual size and weight. My copy is 1170 pages and weighs in at 4.6 pounds. Though I enjoyed the book, and though I enjoy sprawling Russian lit and its occasional glacial pace in general, I had to feel that this novel wasn’t a particularly effective idea-delivery system. It basically has only a handful of ideas - Objectivism is good, collectivism is bad, Static societies are bad, society is divided in to producers, moochers, and looters, and there is no fourth option, and that unbridled lasiez faire capitalism is the only hope for the world. She takes those five basic ideas and drives them home again and again and again, frequently to the point of disservice to the plot. It’s hard to accuse a book as deliberately didactic as this one of overstating their point, but at 3.28 ounces of book per idea, I’ll let you judge for yourselves.
And yet I did enjoy it. As with all Russian(ish) novels, once you get used to the pace and structure, if you just let it wash over you without screaming “Get to the point,” it becomes a fun, entertaining ride. The first half of the book, in which we watch a worm’s eye view of what is essentially the fall of Rome is pretty compelling. Indeed, Rand undoubtedly knew what she was on about here. She was twelve when the Russian Revolution hit, and watched six months of violence in her home town. Her dad’s business was confiscated by the Soviets, and the family was forced to run to the Crimea for four years before it was safe to come home again. Rand went to college in the Soviet Union, but her non-worker status and views resulted in her being purged prior to the completion of her fourth year. Eventually, however, she was let back in and graduated at age Ninteen, then went on to a technical school for film production. While visiting relatives in Chicago in 1926, she defected to the US, seeing our country as a kind of magical wonder world compared to her own, and dedicated herself to preventing Soviet Styled ‘experiments’ here and elsewhere through her development of the Objectivist philosophy.
Dagny, the protagonist, is obviously based on Rand herself, in a somewhat idealized form. She’s unbelievably good looking, but takes no notice of fashion nor girly things except when it suits her to do so. She’s unbelievably intelligent. She’s a business woman, driven to succeed in a man’s world on a man’s own terms. She’s got no kids, nor does she want them. She cares only about her work, though she does have a thing for music. She’s rich. This is a somewhat unlikely combination of attributes, but, hey, the chess pieces have to start off from somewhere, right? It didn’t bother me too much in the same way that it doesn’t bother me too much that Superman is an unlikely character with powers I can never hope to have. Dagny, likewise, is effectively superhuman, though, of course, she’s not a super heroine.
I *do* feel Rand goes a bit too far by having everyone instantly fall in love with Dagny - her assistant, Frisco, Galt, Rearden, probably the cigarette merchant - you name it, they’re all crazy for her. Conversely, everyone who isn’t one of the ‘useful’ people is conspicuously not in love with her. Her brother hates her, Holloway, Thompson, Stadler, all the looters and moochers are immune to her charms and reflexively disdain her. I suppose we can take this to mean that she’s a living symbol of all that’s good in America; the men who love her love America without ever really trying to own her, the men who hate America instantly revile her because she won’t meekly do what they want. As a central metaphor, it’s a bit too clean and tight for me, but it works.
The first third of the book in particular is fun, setting up Frisco - who’s really a more compelling character than anyone else in the book, far more so than that talky young fogey, Galt - and Rearden and Dagny and Wyatt’s attempt to sidestep a global depression by jump-starting an industrial rebirth in Colorado. This is giddy stuff that’s practically a Horatio Alger story in places, despite the fact that everyone’s rich to begin with. The whole “You can’t do this because it’s never been done” straw man arguments sound like dares to our protagonists, and watching them triumph is always a fun thing. Watching them get slapped down and deliberately forced to fail by Jim and the government is actually a bit heartbreaking.
The middle third is intentionally less entertaining, but a bit more interesting. The Destroyer mystery is introduced, and the ‘Who is John Galt?’ element is played up. I can’t decide if this is a well-constructed mystery, or an obvious one. When the question is resolved, all the clues are definitely already there. On the other hand, the clues are so in-your-face that the average reader has figured it out long before the characters have.
Hank Rearden is problematic as a protagonist. We’re supposed to like him. He’s put forward as a brilliant, hard-working man who’s had an amazingly successful rags-to-riches career, and he’s kind of a fully-intended cliché of the best qualities of the nouveau riche. His family, however, are the worst qualities of that same class. He’s got little interaction with them, no apparent friends, no interest in kids, all he does is work, and he’s completely consumed by it. Though these qualities are all presented as admirable - and I don’t think we’re intended to take any subtext from them - the fact is that the guy would seem a strong candidate for High Functioning Aspergers Syndrome. As enticing as his life is intended to be, it never seems quite engaging for the audience because of his emotional remove.
Curiously, Hank is emotionally at war with himself. He feels himself too base to have anything to do with women on a sexual level. Sex is something the bad girls do, and though he wants it, he’s like Groucho Marx refusing to join any club that would have him as a member. He married more out of a sense of social duty than anything else, and quickly realized he’d married a woman who is socially above him, and morally beneath him. They mostly avoid each other. When he and Dagny hook up, he’s disgusted with himself and with her because he’d idolized Ms. Taggart from afar for years, and finding out she was a filthy person who enjoyed sex just as much as filthy people like himself was just too much to take. They continue their affair, but he places strictures on it that, frankly, seem a bit twisted and abusive to me. Gradually he realizes he loves her, and that it’s a new kind of love, which seems poised to make a massive change in him.
I think we’re supposed to take Rearden’s attraction/repulsion towards sex as the kind of behavior that was expected of ‘good’ men in the day, attitudes in the mid-fifties being rather Victorian, at least on the surface. Of course the Victorian’s own attitudes towards sex were all on the surface anyway, weren’t they? Prim and proper by day, whoring about by night. Rearden’s gradual ‘awakening’ to a new kind of thinking is, I suspect, supposed to be a way of leading her audience by hand to her own concept of what sexual politics should be like. In essence, she feels that sex isn’t dirty or base, provided it’s done based on love and a celebration of the finest qualities in each other. There’s also the odd note of courtly love in that Galt has been watching Dagny for years, though this rings creepier in our modern world of stalkers than it was obviously intended to.
On the other hand, the Looters and Moochers use sex for power. Jim Rearden marries a shopgirl entirely because she seemed impressed by him at a chance meeting. He feels bad about himself and wants someone he can feel superior to, but this quickly goes south since she’s fundamentally a better person than him, and he ends up feeling worse than before. Lillian Rearden has a brief affair with Jim to get some political clout for herself after Hank throws her out, and Jim does it so he can look down on Rearden and say “I nailed your wife,” and so he could hurt his own. Of course his own wife kills herself soon afterwards, and Jim gives not a damn. So the bottom line here is that Rand’s version of goodsex is a celebration of love and creation between equals, and badsex is essentially a power play, or simple prostitution. Extortion is also considered fair game for looter/moocher sex, but of course that’s just another form of prostitution, isn’t it?
Whatever effect this transition may have had on Rearden is mostly theoretical in the end, since he’s merely a supporting player in the second half of the book.
Once Dagny gets to Destroyerville, and meets up with Galt, the story kind of looses a wheel. We’re given the “Strike” theory, which appears sensible on the face of it, but more and more over simplistic the closer one looks, and shown a utopian community hidden in the Rockies. (The Rockies would seem to symbolize man’s soaring aspirations, and the borderland between the ethereal plane of creation in the skies and the mundane east-coast dominated world of political tomfoolery and the western frontier of the spirit) It’s obvious that her and Galt love each other, and that Rearden is out of her heart, but they joust pointlessly for a while, and then she leaves.
This rings false to me. She all-but-acknowledges that Galt is right, that his way is pure, blah blah blah, but then she goes out to fight him, albeit not directly. On the one hand, there’s the obvious intended nobility in this of Dagny trying to single-handedly keep the world running because that’s simply who she is. On the other hand, for her not to instantly get the concept, and gleefully sign on makes her intellectually smaller than we’ve been led to believe up to this point, and her egress from the hidden refuge seems more like a case of conspicuous plotting than anything the characters would actually do.
The book never quite recovers from its brief trip to heaven. We get ham-fisted conspiracies, failed crackpot schemes (The Buddhists in California are particularly tragicomic), and extended subplots about Lillian Rearden’s disenfranchisement and Jim Taggart’s marriage that somehow manage to make a point without really going anywhere.
I think the problem is that Dagny is reduced from an active role to just sitting in an office riding herd over a disintegrating company, which just isn’t as aggressive or interesting. She isn’t trying to solve any mysteries, she’s not trying to gain something, so - and I don’t think this is what Rand intended - she comes across as a more passive character. This doesn’t suit her. Rearden’s demotion to a supporting player, another ex-boyfriend also leaves a major void in the narrative, one that isn’t really filled by the nearly-absent John Galt himself. Even Frisco, who kind of jumps off the page, is mostly playing away-games during this section of the novel, and doesn’t make much of an impression. So we get a couple hundred pages of Nero fiddling while Rome burns, and brother, believe you me, it takes Rome a long damn time to burn.
If the journey to heaven caused a wheel to fall off, Galt’s speech breaks an axle. A seventy page monologue is entirely too much. The narrative grinds to a halt, things are stated entirely too clearly, then stated again, then re-stated, then re-re-stated, and lest there be any confusion on these issues, they’re further encapsulated later. I’m already ten pages in to this review, so we’ll save a discussion of Objectivism for another day, but suffice to say this is the equivalent of Stephen’s long speech on the history of the Jews in Acts, immediately before they kill him. I understand why she did it - her Messiah will not stand silently before his accusers - but, man, it just kills the book.
The remaining section essentially serves to tie up the loose ends, throw in a bit of action and adventure that the book is sorely in need of, show us the collapse of the world, the fall of Rome from the air, and give us a brief glimpse of the better tomorrow that is about to be born, but it never recaptures the spirit the first third of the book had. I suspect *some* of this is intentional, showing us the evil world beating down upon the souls of the few just folk around who still manage to have functioning souls, but it goes on so long that I suspect Mrs. Rand didn’t quite realize how much she was overdoing it. The action sequence during the rescue of Galt fumbles the ball as much as it carries it. If there is ever a time when speechifying is inappropriate, it’s during a prison break, but we get it in scads just the same.
If I have a complaint about this book - and I hate to say this, since I do love Russian novels, and English-written Russian Novels are always a treat - it’s that it’s too long. Rand seldom makes a point without making it three times. I don’t mind the long stretches of internal monologue in which nothing happens, I kind of like them actually, but the constant reiteration of concepts she’s already put entirely too fine a point on grows wearying, particularly when you realize they’re going to be enumerated in a seventy-page speech later on anyway. I know this makes me sound hypocritical, but the book could easily have been whittled down to 700 pages, and it wouldn’t have lost anything substantial.
And yet there is much to love in here, despite its occasionally overbearing nature. I’m particularly fond of the little bits on the fringes of the story - the bum Dagny presses in to service when her train dies, who turns out to be a noble soul much better than her employees themselves - the Professor trying to take over the super ray cannon - the train steward whistling music Dagny’s never heard that’s obviously by her favorite musician who retired a decade earlier - the scene between the pirate and Hank - The Wet Nurse’s redemption and death on behalf of Hank - that final haunting vision of the transcontinental train system abandoned in favor of century-old wagon trains - those are all great images, great moments, which stick with me long after the specific annoyances at a lack of editorial restraint are gone.
It’s interesting for a book written in the fifties that Rand completely missed - or ignored - the prominence of television. TV scarcely makes an appearance in the book.
It’s also interesting how little a role air and car travel have in the story. To set a story in the sixties (Theoretically) and have everyone still traveling by train was as ludicrous then as it is now. Clearly she didn’t anticipate the rise of the Interstate Highway System - which was just getting going at that point - but I do have to call her on not realizing it would eventually emerge as the main mode of transit, given how car-mad everyone was after World War II. Indeed, she was living in the golden age of Car Culture, and she missed it. Aircraft, likewise, aren’t really seen in a commercial sense, though there’s a lot of private ones flying around. Again, how could she not have seen the rise of this mode of mass transit? We do get some discussion of the dismemberment of the car industry itself, so perhaps that tracks, but there’s no real mention of the air industry falling apart.
It took me a while to realize “Mister Thompson” is the president, though no one ever actually calls him that.
I would have preferred a Dagmar Hammarskjold to have had a bit more ‘screen time’ in the book. He’s a pirate who’s been sinking all the handouts the US Government ships to Europe for a decade, and he seems like a fascinating character, but we barely see him.
When all is said and done, Galt isn’t that interesting. When we finally meet him, you don’t get the emotional payoff that Rand is hoping for. Instead, it comes across as “Who is Darkman?” “He’s some guy you’ve never heard of.” “Oh, ok, never mind then.”
It was fascinating to me to see how influential this book has been in other realms of SF. Heinlein made occasional elliptical references, most notably in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and Straczynski has made quite a few mentions of Rand’s “Rational Egoism” (Which he re-names “Enlightened Self Interest”) in Babylon 5.
I love Frisco. He jumps off the page. He’s the best realized character in the book. I can’t say enough good things about him, but his whole plan to hasten the end of the world by pissing away his own fortune in misleading ways was brilliant. I like his odd virtue. Jokingly I called him Batman before, but he’s really more like Don Diego, playing at being a dandy by night, and working resolutely for secret purposes by day.
Oddly, the idea of state-sponsored scientific research is considered a bad thing in this book. I’m not sure why, but perhaps Mrs. Rand simply had an only-vague idea what “Pure research” entailed. Clearly, she believes that research should be for practical concerns only, and in the hands of corporations. I don’t have a problem with that, but there’s exceptions that she blithely condemns. In the real world, for instance, no corporation or confederation thereof could have managed the space program, nor developed Nuclear Power. Those were based on pure research, which was funded by the government. Not that I’m the government’s biggest fan, but this was an odd notion to come from a woman who’s generally regarded as a “Science is Good” kind of thinker.
All of the good guys in this book are married to their work, they have no kids, they don’t want kids, their interpersonal relationships are what we would consider to be rather marginal at best, they do not suffer fools gladly, only they know the truth, they’re not the one with the problem - everyone around them has a problem, and they’re rather emotionally distant. I suddenly get why the pretentious kids from my youth loved this so much - they saw themselves reflected in the new ruling class herein - and yet they seem mostly rather sketchy to me, more ciphers than people, with a very few exceptions.
I know some people out there will still read this review and scream madly in to the night that this isn't a Science Fiction Book. Well, folks, you're wrong. It is. It's got ray guns and everything, and in a less facetious note, the book fundamentally deals with the ways technology changes society, and it's a cautionary tale of a future dystopia. These are two basic tropes of what Science Fiction does. Just deal with it, expand your world view a bit, and move on. I *will* concede that although these two elements permeate the entire novel, they're not front and center for large stretches of the story. It *is* unquestionably SF, but it's of a particularly laid back, human oriented sort. The closest comparison I can think of is "On Wings of Song" by the late Thomas Disch, which is unquestionably an SF novel, but it's so overtly a tale about a gay prostitute trying to develop his musical sense that most people miss the SF aspects of it, even though they're central.
This is, at root, a brilliant book, though it is perhaps not as brilliant as its author thought it was, based as it is largely on straw man arguments. Still, it’s hard for me not to like a book that suggests the end of the world is a good thing, because then we get to build something even cooler.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?
Yes and no. It’s an atheist book, no getting around that, the Objectivist Philosophy is openly materialistic and explicitly rejects anything of a spiritual nature. Spirituality is openly mocked throughout the book, though Organized Western Religion isn’t specifically. There’s a subtext that hokey “Eastern” beliefs are bad for society, but “Western” ones are tolerable, even if not particularly ‘good’ for it. People have sex outside the confines of marriage, and sometimes this is portrayed as a good thing, sometimes as a bad thing. The morality of the book takes a watered down version of the Nietzschian concept that rules and morals are inherently immoral, and one must find meaning for oneself. Conservatives will not like that.
On the other hand, it slams on the government to no end, and Conservatives always like that. It mocks liberals, socialists, communists, and bleeding hearts in general. There’s an unfettered, glowing adoration of “America” and Capitalism in fawning concepts, and the recurring theme (Every theme in this book is recurring, really) that we are, have always been, and will always be the greatest nation on earth, we just got a bit off track for the best of intentions. It’s the kind of infectious adulation that could only come from an immigrant fleeing a destroyed homeland, actually.
There’s much that a Conservative would like in here, and much that would doubtless offend them.
Tomorrow we'll wrap up this series with a discussion of Rand's philosophy.
Presently I'm reading:
* Homemade Hollywood by Clive Young
* Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
* World War Z by Max Brooks.
* The Persian Book of Kings
Stuff on the pile to get to after those:
* Your Trip in to Space by Poole
* The Toynbee Convector by Bradbury
* The Star Diaries by Lem
* Something Wicked This Way Comes by Bradbury
* The Killer Angels by Shaara
* The Science Fiction Stories of Jack London by London
* Gumby: The World's favorite Clayboy by
* The Watchmen by Gibbons and Moore