Atlas Slogged – A report on reading an almost unreadable book
Richard Dawkins, the puckish and quotable standard bearer of the new atheism, once called the God portrayed in the Old Testament “the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” Of the OT God’s legion of fans, Dawkins then added, “I suspect they… haven’t read the Old Testament or they’re not the kind of people I would wish to know.”
These words came back to me time and again as I worked my way, like a starving mendicant in a vast desert, through Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Dr. Dawkins didn’t like Jehovah? Wait till he meets John Galt and Co. Never have I met a collection of protagonists so thoroughly inhuman and unlikable. Never have I thought so often while reading, “Has anyone actually sat down and read this?” By the time I came to the end of the 1168 page monsterpiece I was totally numb to the book’s arguments and, even more so, bored by my reaction. Perhaps that is Ms. Rand’s greatest rhetorical technique: Repetition. Like a child bleating at not getting a candy bar in the check-out aisle, Atlas Shrugged tries to sway the reader by keeping the case simple and not letting up.
Let’s back up. Why was I reading Atlas Shrugged in the first place? The truth is I felt intellectually dishonest. In a previous post, I took some easy potshots at the version of Rand’s philosophy that fits within a movie trailer. I had read The Fountainhead before, and quite enjoyed it, and I felt I knew enough to make some digs at her philosophy, Objectivism, without actually reading the magnum opus that birthed it. I felt bad about that, thinking perhaps there was more to Objectivism then I had supposed. So I decided I needed to give the old girl a fair shot and read Atlas Shrugged. Maybe I had Rand wrong. I didn’t.
Simply put, the book is unenjoyable because it ignores a fundamental rule of fiction: characters need to be recognizably human, and recognizably distinct. There are only two characters in Atlas Shrugged. One could be nicknamed “A” and the other “Z.” Each of these characters is replicated perhaps two dozen times. This is an orchestra with many instruments, but everyone’s playing the same two notes.
“A” believes a lot of “A”-ish things, like that God doesn’t exist, marriage and charity are handicapping artifacts, and the only thing worth waking up for every day is your own onanist accomplishments. “A” characters have a mantra, expressed by John Galt that, in short, declares, “I will never live for any other man.” One wonders what such a person does with an elderly parent or a handicapped sibling, a mugging victim, or a baby abandoned on a front step. We never find out since it appears that everyone in Atlas Shrugged is 1) between 21 and 60; 2) completely healthy, and 3) completely in control of their own financial destiny. Nobody in the Randian world gets laid off because of an economic bubble. And if they did, it would be only because of an evil outside influence. Such bubbles could only be created by a “Z” character.
Who is this “Z” character? That is less clearly defined. These characters are full of anguish, spite, and have Pinko opinions about the world economy. It is worth noting that their socialist leanings are directly linked to their unhappiness. They are sad because they care about poor people. “Z” characters mumble axioms of self-doubt like, “No one really knows,” and “How can you be so sure?” What exactly does “no one really know?” No one really knows. These vague assertions come fast and furious and never actually land a solid punch on any argument I am familiar with. Ayn Rand hates the same kind of liberals that Ann Coulter envisions in all those books with “Liberal” in the title.
All these cardboard characters, our countless iterations of “A” and “Z”, would be at least tolerable if this were a morality play that lasted a couple hours. Instead, Atlas Shrugged may require 60+ hours of reading time.
The classic response to an Atlas Shrugged critique comes in two flavors. The critic hates Rand’s philosophy of individual accomplishment (because such critic is secretly a self-hating “Z” character); or, alternatively, the critic doesn’t understand Rand because he’s too dim–if he really read the book closely he’d get that this thing is a true masterpiece.
Well, I read Atlas Shrugged closely and I do not dislike it for its philosophy. I dislike it for its delivery. Philosophically, there is plenty to take away from this book, even if its ideas are presented in the most infantile way. For example, Rand extols the importance of individual accomplishment. Here here! She applauds the many virtues of the free market. She is suspicious of government overreaching. No argument here. Finally, she wants us to stop worrying so much and have a good time. Treat yo self!
These ideas, presented by human-resembling characters in opposition to believable antagonists, could have made a good novel. Unfortunately, Ayn Rand did not write that novel.
One of my few consolations during the penitential slog through Atlas was to dig up original reviews the novel got back when it was published in 1957. Therein I found solidarity. The LA Times was clever enough to compile them so I don’t have to. Here’s a selection, which express my reaction better than I can myself:
Granville Hicks, New York Times
It howls in the reader’s ear and beats him about the head in order to secure his attention, and then, when it has him subdued, harangues him for page upon page. It has only two moods, the melodramatic and the didactic, and in both it knows no bounds.
Helen Beal Woodward, Saturday Review
Miss Rand is undone by her prolixity and her incontinence. She sets up one of the finest assortments of straw men ever demolished in print, and she cannot refrain from making her points over and over….
Throughout its 1,168 pages, Miss Rand never cracks a smile. Conversations deteriorate into monologues as one character after another laboriously declaims his set of values.
Donald Malcolm, the New Yorker
Miss Rand’s villains resemble no one I have ever encountered, and I finally decided to call them “liberals,” chiefly because I can’t imagine whom else she might have in mind.
Whittaker Chambers, National Review
Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel.