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Atlas Shrugged: 'Whatever…'.

Posted by Thersites on UTC 2015-10-10 09:16.

It always astonishes me when otherwise sensible people hymn the praises of Ayn Rand's 'novel' Atlas Shrugged.

The book's good points seem to be:

  • It is supposed to expound a philosophy that is alleged to range from seminal to life-enhancing in its importance.
  • It has been very influential (at least in terms of copies printed). It must have stemmed the tide of socialist superstates sweeping across the world for… oh, ten minutes.
  • Er… it's quite useful for raising the height of your computer monitor.

Its bad points? Only one: it is completely unreadable by any normal human being.

When I first bought the book many years ago I got as far as the first few paragraphs of the first page and no further. From the evidence of the first page this book is going to be the most abysmal, incomprehensible stodge. No further precious minutes or hours should be wasted on it. Some will be outraged that I can call the book stodge after only reading the first page. But surely any sane author makes sure the first page is the best bit, in order to catch the passing trade as it were. If the first page is awful then the rest is going to be dire.

I think that it was the sociologist Herbert Spencer who had an excellent habit: when he got a new book he used to read it for the duration of a few circuits of his garden. If the book didn't reach the Spencerian standard in that time it was straight on the compost heap with it. (Perhaps I misremember: it may have been Comte – whatever.)

In Atlas Shrugged the first page is indeed awful. Here's the paragraph on page one where I think I gave up all those years ago:

Eddie Willers walked on, wondering why he always felt it at the time of day, this sense of dread without reason. No, he thought, not dread, there's nothing to fear: just and immense, diffused apprehension with no source or object. He had become accustomed to the feeling, but he could find not explanation for it; yet the bum had spoken as if he knew that Eddie felt it, as if he thought that one should feel it, and more: as if he knew the reason.

Now, if Ayn had written a thousand page tract titled Objectivism for Dummies, that would have been a different matter. She didn't. She wrote a novel. A novel has to engross the reader with its use of language, its plot, characterisation. It has to pull all the registers of dramatic effect to make the reader forget that he or she may be sitting on some hot and smelly commuter train on the way to work holding two kilos of book.

We know with certainty from this paragraph alone that Ayn Rand cannot do that. It is just not in her. There is no point reading this author further – certainly not for the remaining 1000+ pages. Already in the middle of page one Atlas Shrugged is circling the drain.

In contrast, here is a possible yardstick of novel-writing:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

[Earnest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 1]

Or, if you prefer something more polemical, this would do:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

[John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter 1]

These are examples of the beginnings of novels written by people who could write. They draw you in. You enter a world; you are focussed, alive. All your brain is working. They are novelists. Barely a word can be added, changed or left out without ruining these paragraphs.

Contrast this with Atlas Shrugged, where you could add, change or delete words without any appreciable effect. You could probably even swap the sentences around and no one would notice.

I chose these two yardsticks not just because they are good models of the novelist's craft but because they communicate an oppressive foreboding that we feel directly. When Ayn Rand wants to communicate foreboding she writes of a 'sense of dread without reason', an 'immense, diffused apprehension'. A writer who writes this badly has to go straight on the compost heap or under the monitor.

When I assert that the book is stodge without having read it through, the Randistas, glowing with passion for Ayn, just let off howls of 'unfair'. It is unjust to say it is stodge from just reading the first page, I should have persevered with this seminal work. It demands thought and application from its readers. The book was first published 1957 and there still seem to be people around who claim to have read it all the way through, even several times. Was I right to give up so soon? Let's see.

I stick my finger in the rear of Ayn Rand this time. It turns out to be in the crack between pages 760 and 761. Towards the bottom of 761 I read:

It seemed to him for an instant that he saw an incongruous look on the worn, cynical faces of the newsmen, a look that was not quite respect, expectation or hope, but more like an echo of these, like a faint reflection of the look they might have worn in their youth on hearing the name of Robert Stadler. In that instant he felt an impulse that he would not acknowledge: the impulse to tell them that he know nothing about today's event, that his power counted for less than theirs, that he had been brought here as a pawn in some confidence game, almost as … as a prisoner.

It does not compute. At the most basic level of language, the communication of meaning, it does not compute. After having forced myself to type this rubbish in, I no longer have the energy to deconstruct it properly. Just read it: it's rot.

Well, perhaps the fans might say that I was prejudiced or cherry picking, or that if I had read the preceding 760 pages attentively that paragraph would have been lambent to me. OK, fans, I insert my finger once more into Ayn, this time further forward: page 399, this time, but down at the bottom again:

He stood at the window, looking down at the streaming roofs of automobiles, letting his eyes rest on something while his faculty of sight was disconnected. His mind was still focussed on the crowd in the ballroom downstairs and on two figures in that crowd. But as his living room remained on the edge of his vision, so the sense of some action he had to perform remained on the edge of his consciousness. He grasped it for a moment – it was the fact that he had to remove his evening clothes – but farther beyond the edge there was the feeling of reluctance to undress in the presence of a strange woman in the bedroom, and he forgot it again the next moment.

Is this the beginning of an Ayn Rand sex scene? Does our hero realize this? Is he perhaps too busy 'grasping the sense of some action for a moment', or perhaps he is just in early-onset dementia? Why does Ayn tell us he is looking at 'the streaming roofs of automobiles' even though he wasn't looking at them because 'his faculty of sight was disconnected'? In which case, what meaning does this unseen sight have for us? In what way do these vehicles participate in the plot? This person has amazing visual skills: whilst he is not looking at what he he looking at, his living room also manages to be 'on the edge of his vision'. Why do we spend so much time examining the mechanics of this person's mental processes?

Still unconvinced? Onwards and downwards: will this exegetical journey never end? By looking for a sequence of quotation marks I found what I take to be the John Galt speech, which is considered by her fans to be a crucial part of the book. This starts on page 936 and ends on page 993 in my edition so it's about 60 pages long (unless, of course – and I certainly wouldn't put it past Rand – there is another 100 page speech somewhere else). This is supposed to be a radio broadcast, which in itself threatens all suspension of disbelief. 'Clear the schedules! I have a 60 page script to read'. When this broadcast, this seemingly crucial moment in the plot, finally ends, probably about three hours after it started, here's how our Ayn handles the denouement:

"It wasn't real, was it?" said Mr. Thompson.
They stood in front of the radio, as the last sound of Galt's voice had left them. No one had moved through the span of silence: they had stood, looking at the radio, as if waiting. But the radio was now only a wooden box with some knobs and a circle of cloth stretched over an empty loud-speaker.
"We seem to have heard it," said Tinky Holloway.
"We couldn't help it," said Chick Morrison.
Mr. Thompson was sitting on a crate. The pale, oblong smear at the level of his elbow was the face of Wesley Mouch, who was seated on the floor.

It is hardly the conclusion of Sydney Carton's speech in Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities. At every level it is clunkily awful. Even at the most basic level of narrative continuity, in one sentence they are standing round the radio, in the next sentence they (or at least two of them) are sitting down. I note in passing that this lengthy radio rant will bring to the minds of sensitive readers the Friday evening rants of Goebbels in the heady days of the Third Reich. The leadership principle behind them is the same.

I appeal to all readers of this post with any sanity left not to read this book. If you are interested in Objectivism get the executive summary – it's all you will ever need – from Wikipedia. In its entry for Ayn Rand, Wikipedia currently contains a sequence of statements from which we Anti-Randistas can gain much harmless, unintentional pleasure:

Rand declared herself "the most creative thinker alive". After completing the novel, Rand fell into a severe depression. Atlas Shrugged was Rand's last completed work of fiction; a turning point in her life, it marked the end of Rand's career as a novelist and the beginning of her role as a popular philosopher.

The depression probably came from having to read all the printer's proofs. At least there is the quiet satisfaction that 'the most creative thinker alive' didn't write any more novels, since her last was unreadable stodge, in anyone's book.