Tuesday, November 13, 2007

"Atlas Shrugged" -- 50th Anniversary

Someone I know casually from a writer's forum noted recently that it's the 50th anniversary of "Atlas Shrugged," the famous doorstop-sized book from Ayn Rand. I have to admit to not reading this, but even Ayn Rand's shorter works have a kind of leaden heavy-handed thud to them. Something the size of "Atlas Shrugged" would require me to take more heart medicine, I'm sure of it.

I loved their review and felt that it was worth reading on its own even if you never intend to read "Atlas Shrugged" (and after reading this review, you probably won't).

Review: Atlas Shrugged
The prose: it's not very good, although that's something Rand is willing to admit both within and without the main text. According to her, the artist's main goal is to be understood, which seems to me to be a limited aim among the many open to the novelist. The book's afterword tells of her struggle to find publishers: I can't help wondering if that's because a good editor would have recommended cutting the book by 400-500 pages, thereby deleting much of the repetition (her train rides through the prairies achieve the remarkable feat of becoming duller, through repetition, than an actual train ride through the prairies) and giving the parts that are meant to have impact some air. Her stylistic debts to a number of Russian revolutionary artistic movements are large - constructivism, muscular boy-meets-tractor realism - but her use of them usually appears tacked-on and artificial, as though her outline contained the instruction: "insert intellectual grace note here."

The plotting doesn't aspire to much beyond the Nancy Drew level and doesn't need to: Rand's only interest is the inevitable and she doesn't want surprises distracting anyone's attention.

I remember being told when I read Atlas for the first time in the 1980s that I had to make allowances for the fact that she was "of her period" and that the language and characters had dated, somewhat. It happened again when I mentioned to one or two of her fans here that I was re-reading the book. So I had a look for other authors who published something significant within a year of Atlas' debut: I found Singer, Nabokov, Kerouac, Ellison, Bellow, Updike and O'Hara, then I decided to stop looking. In my view, it's not correct to amend the description of Rand's writing as "stilted, graceless, stiff, repetitious and thin" with the phrase "compared to what we read today." She was, comparatively, all those things in her time and would have been for decades beforehand. I have come to wonder if she disdained all those things that make reading a pleasure as potential barriers to the reader's understanding.

The characters: Don't look for depth or subtlety: if he's firm-jawed, resolute and committed in the first paragraph, that's all he will ever be. One of the characteristics of lead characters in genre fiction is that they never change, never grow, and never alter themselves or their behaviour as a result of their relationships with the world or the people around them. Chuck Norris is always Chuck Norris. This is what makes them invaluable tools for social satirists: put these one-dimensional wonders into a world gone mad and you can point out the comedy or the dangers of the "conventional" reflex. Gulliver, Crusoe, Father Brown... Take your pick.

Rand supplies a trinity of such firm-jawed stock heroes (one of them's a woman, but never mind.) My initial hopes that they would be used to illustrate the variety of possible responses to the world gone mad, that their differing relationships would push them in different ways, that they might choose different means of fighting the injustices they perceive in common, came to naught. Rand's dirigisme (something I'm always surprised to see in an emigree from Communism) means every heroic type must not only come to see the same guiding light but sign up for an identical plan of action. So much for individuality and the competition of ideas, I suppose...

Not to bait the fans, but: I read an article a few months ago about dating relationships where both people have Asperger's. "We get dressed up to go out for romantic dinners and have passionate discussions about new Java applications and Star Trek novels," was the line that stuck with me. In my mind, there's a case to be made that Atlas is the first novel to feature three Asperger's leads.

To bait the fans: if you're not already a Randian and are going to give Atlas a try, whenever you see the name "Ragnar Danneskjold," think "Tinkerbell." The parallels, both in the author's usage of him as a plot device and the character, are frankly uncanny.

Where she does score well, and some credit is due, is in the caricatures of the bent politicians and union leaders. They're not in the Studs Terkel league for painful accuracy but they're head and shoulders above any of the heroes for subtlety and differentiation.

The philosophy: the bit that gets debated at length by the world is the novel's genuinely original contribution. I was as unmoved by the notions that profit is the only meaningful measure of value, that taxation is theft and that charity is an evil as I was on first reading 20 years ago. The watered-down versions, that adding value to the world is good and deserving of honest reward, that there is no right to a free lunch, that economic success is most easily achieved when individual liberty is high, appear to draw the same contempt from Rand as hard-core communism.

There's an insistence throughout the book that only one course of action, only one societal model, only one score of value is possible. Worse, there's a parallel insistence that disagreement is evidence of irrationality. I'm not particularly susceptible to catastrophism of this kind, I suppose: I finished the book feeling a kind of sympathy (Rand would call it pity) for its followers. I guess if they're desperate for some sort of logically-consistent theory of human affairs, Rand's is as good as any.

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