Atlas Shrugged; So Did I
Before getting into my thoughts on Atlas Shrugged, let me state for the record that I do not easily give up on novels, no matter how much I may dislike or disagree with them — which is not the point of fiction, anyway (that is, being ‘liked’ or ‘agreed with’). I generally hold as a principle of fiction that a novel must be fully read in order to be fully understood or appreciated, fully dismissed or criticized, even fully enjoyed or loved. Every writer has until the word on the final page to convince you that what they are doing is worthwhile, that it all means something, all works together toward some end — some truth or beauty, some connection or conviction, some catharsis or calamity — that is worth arriving at, that has some depth or significance. Fiction has the power to enrage you for a thousand pages and then enrapture you in one.
All that being said, it is with great exhaustion and deep regret that I must report that I’ve abandoned my first book of the year. None of the books so far have been easy; each has challenged me in their own way, but Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is the first novel in the course of my project that I’ve found myself literally unable to finish. I gave up almost halfway through. (To any of Miss Rand’s notoriously
rabid diehard fans who almost certainly view me as a lesser human simply for being unable to get through her novel: you may not want to read the rest of this post.)
For those of you who know next to nothing about Ayn Rand (like I didn’t when I started her book), she is best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which in many ways are merely stages upon which she enacts her philosophical theory of Objectivism (for which she’s also known and from which she has primarily garnered her zealous fan base) in story form. (Objectivism, in my interpretation, is essentially a combination of rationalism, capitalism, humanism, and hedonism, as well as contempt for anything remotely spiritual or religious.)
The novel is set in either a sort of ‘near future’ or an ‘alternate reality’ (though it never specifically states this), wherein every nation in the world except America has apparently become a “People’s State” (i.e., implicitly Socialist or Communist), and America is on the verge of falling to these ideals as well. American leaders of government, business, science, art, philosophy, etc. have all come under the spell of anti-reason, anti-individualism, and anti-capitalism, preferring instead a sort of fluffy, fair-shake model of altruism which holds “public welfare” as the highest good and considers “greed” the gravest sin.
The last beam of hope in this dreadfully others-focused world seems to lie with the industrialists: particularly Dagny Taggert, of the Taggert Transcontinental Railroad, and Henry Rearden, of Rearden Steel. Rand spends a great deal of effort (and fills a great many pages) romanticizing the industrialist: the hero of reason, the inspirer of hard work, the last remnant of the virtue of self-interest, trying to stop the pluralistic socialists from destroying all that’s good in the world. But what happens to the world when these last great minds, the valorous knights of reason, go on strike?
The main problem with the tactic of using fiction as a platform for explicating idealogy is that it ruins a potentially good story by oversaturating it with philosophical soliloquy (read: lecture). In many ways Atlas Shrugged reads like an Objectivist’s morality play, depicting a world which does not heed the tenets of her view, warning the reader of the dangers of altruism (which is a big no-no in Objectivism). The world of Atlas Shrugged is indeed Rand’s nightmare scenario; if she believed in hell, this would be hers.
Now, I’m an open-minded guy — not to mention a fairly rational and hardworking individual. So, while I’m by no means an Objectivist and in many ways more liberal than conservative, the issue isn’t that I find myself diametrically opposed to everything Ayn Rand stands for. And anyway, like I said, you don’t have to agree with a novel (or its author’s proposed worldview) in order to appreciate its art or value its story. Furthermore, there’s personal benefit in considering the opinions of those you disagree with.
Honestly, I was intrigued by where the plot was headed, but I figured it out waaaay before the characters ever did. I quit reading before the characters figured it out. The plot was moving sooo slowly (mainly because of Rand’s constant sermonizing) that I couldn’t skim enough to get to what was coming next. I looked up the plot summary on SparkNotes (which I never do) just to make sure I was right (which I was). But even that’s not my real issue with the book.
Really, the issue is this:
Ever have a conversation with someone (or read someone’s blog…) who is operating under the presumption that you already agree with everything they’re saying — or anyway definitely should — and who speaks in such a way which does not invite — or implicitly prohibits — rebuttal?
That’s Ayn Rand.
There’s no gray area in Atlas Shrugged, no struggle, no subtlety. Every character who represents Objectivism is glorified as a saint or a martyr, and every character who doesn’t is either some pitiful, obsequious ball of whining ineffectuality or a sleazy, double-speaking serpent with purely destructive motives. How is a reader supposed to identify with characters like that? They’re not even characters: they’re just personified ideologies! Rand wants you simply to love the one and hate the other. She gives no room for her readers to rebut, to disagree, to think, and no reward for sitting through her philosophy lecture. This is why the people who love Ayn Rand are crazy about her: they already agree with everything she’s saying. They’re like, “Yes! This is the best novel ever! It’s someone putting how I think the world should be into a story!”
But for those of us who want to rebut, who desire struggle and subtlety in fiction, and who appreciate wrestling through gray area, what are we supposed to do with a novel like Atlas Shrugged? What are we supposed to do when we’re given Olympian gods as protagonists with pathetic straw men to antagonize them? What are we supposed to do when a novel’s whole purpose is to present the unequivocal ‘right way’ to view the world?
We shrug. Then we go on strike.
— Read on