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Ayn Shrugged

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One of the unlikely beneficiaries of the current financial crisis is the estate of Ayn Rand. Sales of Atlas Shrugged, her dystopian classic, have soared in the past year. The book has been solidly in the Amazon bestseller list and briefly edged into that of the New York Times. Not bad for a novel published in 1957. And especially impressive for a work that—viewed purely as literature—must be accounted a disastrous failure.

Pace, all you Randians: I am one of you. I have a small picture of the lady on my desk in the European Parliament, next to a signed photograph of Margaret Thatcher, a bust of Thomas Jefferson, and a silver medal from the Ludwig von Mises Institute. The most pleasing compliment paid to me as a politician was when some conservative students started selling a T-shirt with the slogan “Who is Dan Han?”—a reference to the famous opening line of Rand’s magnum opus, “Who is John Galt?”

Rand was a visionary, and her critique of the corporatist order was eerily apt. She argued that her book was prophylactic: a portrayal of a future she wanted to avoid. In some ways, it worked. Very few people argue, nowadays, that economies should be run on the basis of state planning or that socialism is inevitable. In other ways, her analysis of the business-political order—the monopolistic instincts of industrialists, the favoring of back-room deals over open competition, the way party politics punishes integrity and promotes moral cowardice—is eternally true.

In the institutions of the European Union, which were designed by and for bureaucrats and lobbyists, I see Randian scenes being played out every day. Conversations are conducted on the basis of unstated ententes, and directness is considered the height of bad taste. Slogans about the welfare of the citizen are trotted out without thought or meaning, while unspoken plots are hatched against the public weal.

Never mind the EU. Who can meet the directors of a mammoth multinational without thinking of Rand’s description of a company board: “Men who, through the decades of their careers, had relied for their security on keeping their faces blank, their words inconclusive and their clothes impeccable”?

Yet there is no getting away from it: the book simply doesn’t work as a novel. At this stage, I should insert a spoiler warning: the rest of this article will make no sense unless I give away what the book is about. Then again, as we shall see, one of the flaws of Atlas Shrugged is that it is poorly paced. You can see every twist in the plot coming hundreds of pages before you reach it.

Let’s start with the most basic problem. Atlas Shrugged is too long. Way too long. Its point could have been very adequately made in 200 pages rather than the 1,168 of my Penguin edition. Now you might argue that some books need to be long. A novelist who sets out to create a plausible universe, and to people it with developed characters, must give himself room, be he Tolstoy or Tolkien. But there is nothing especially developed about the characters in Atlas Shrugged. They are all more or less interchangeable, speaking in dissertations and behaving in set patterns.

It’s true that the reader travels a long way, morally and politically, between the covers. In the opening pages, we see the railroad chief executive, James Taggart, talking in cliché about the need to “do something for the people,” about there being “higher values than profit.” Toward the end, we see the destructive nihilism of those values. As Taggart hurls a Venetian vase against his wall, we are told,

He had bought that vase for the satisfaction of thinking of all the connoisseurs who could not afford it. Now he experienced the satisfaction of a revenge upon the centuries which had prized it—and the satisfaction of thinking that there were millions of desperate families, any one of whom could have lived for a year on the price of that vase.

That is not a journey on which the reader can be hurried. Had the author baldly stated, “People who talk about non-material virtue and the imperative of need are, in reality, death-cultists who are running away from their own moral emptiness,” the audience would have scoffed. So, yes, a certain amount of space is called for. But having given herself the room, Rand makes little use of it. Her argument is not so much developed as repeated in words that barely alter. It is as though she is trying to push her thesis into us with repeated hammer blows, falling in the same place and with unvaried force.

The novel lacks any sense of movement. We begin and end in a world where nothing works very well. Although there is some mention in the closing chapters of food riots and social breakdown, there is little sense of continuous deterioration. Having at an early stage lost its productive people, the U.S. seems to manage to keep its radio and television networks going, its taxis running, its restaurants serving food. Only in the very final pages do the lights go out.

Nor do the characters develop. They fall into two categories: listless masses and men of action. Those in the former category mill about dully as an undifferentiated supporting cast. Those in the latter group also are interchangeable. Their faces are invariably made of “angular planes.” They speak “without inflection” or “without emotion.” They make up for this by having impossibly communicative eyes. Again and again, we come across absurd passages: “Francisco held his voice flat and steady, but he had the eyes of a man who had had an extra muffin at tea-time, knowing that he really shouldn’t have done, and was now resolved to go for a lengthy country walk, although he half suspected that he would end up pouring himself a generous cocktail when he got home, which would rather take the point out of the whole thing.”

P.G. Wodehouse manages such passages beautifully. Ayn Rand doesn’t. Indeed—again, there is no way of putting this without horrifying her legion of admirers—she isn’t much of a prose stylist. She is especially bad at dialogue, making no attempt at either realism or readability but letting her characters converse in philosophical treatises. Queen Victoria complained that her prime minister, W.E. Gladstone, addressed her as if she were a public meeting. The cast of Atlas Shrugged address each other in a series of essays.

Now you might say that my objection is silly. The book, after all, is a political tract presented in fictional form. But this shouldn’t mean it has to be hard to read. George Orwell, too, was primarily an essayist, and his two bestselling books, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, were also political tracts presented as fiction. But both worked as fiction. Both were page-turners.

The same cannot be said of Atlas Shrugged. Apart from anything else, it is marred by small errors. I won’t list them all, since nothing is more tedious to the reader, but they range from irksome failures of research—Francisco d’Anconia is supposed to be descended from a conquistador, so why doesn’t he have a Spanish surname? And why did his ancestor go straight to Buenos Aires, which wasn’t founded until 1580?—to nagging incongruities of plot—if the U.S. is the country where all the productive people have withdrawn their labor, why does it remain solvent when the rest of the world has collapsed? These things are not dealbreakers, of course: follow the plot of, say, “King Lear,” and you’ll find plenty of inconsistencies. But all successful novels depend on pace, on maintaining tension.

And it is here that Atlas Shrugged most fails. Every twist and turn, every deus ex machina, is so ploddingly anticipated as to be robbed of dramatic impact: the identities of Dr. Stadler’s three students, the fate of the inventor of the engine, the name of the worker to whom Eddie Willers pours out his heart, the motives of the figure whom Dagny senses watching her in the shadows, the explanation for Francisco d’Anconia’s apparent hedonism. A friend of mine, a British MP, is on page 800 of Atlas Shrugged as I write. When I mentioned that I was drafting this article, he said, “Don’t tell me, you’ll ruin the plot.” Then he paused and said, “Actually, no, don’t worry: there isn’t a plot. It’s just a series of essays.”

Yes, it is, and therein lies its continuing appeal. Ask a committed Randian about the book, and he will quote one of the set-piece speeches just as a Shakespearean will quote a soliloquy. Neither is primarily interested in the narrative.

Even now, those essays come across as uncompromising. But in 1957, when almost every intellectual was more or less statist, they must have been shocking. Editing the book to make it easier to read would have betrayed one of its chief arguments: that we must live according to our own code and not for the sake of others. The key passage, in this regard, comes from the composer Richard Halley. He abandoned his audience at the height of his success, he explains, because they had wanted him to succeed on their terms, not his. There speaks the authentic authorial voice. No editor would have approved the rough-hewn draft of Atlas Shrugged; all would have pleaded for excisions. But Rand wouldn’t compromise. If readers wanted to benefit from her work, they would have to meet her standards. If not, fine: she owed them nothing.

This creed is stated with a deliberate pitilessness, right up to the closing sentence: “He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.” But Rand believed that any softening would be a concession to the values she loathed: cant, neediness, the elevation of mercy over justice, of the collective over the individual. In form as well as in content, she tried to give force to her ideals.

“My personal life,” she said, “is a postscript to my novels; it consists of the sentence ‘And I mean it’.” Yes, we believe you. That’s why, whatever its shortcomings as a novel, we still buy your book. That’s why you have influenced generations of undergraduates—in the U.S., at least, if not on my side of the Atlantic. And that’s why I pay you the highest tribute: if your ideas seem less outré now than when they were written, it is because of the influence of your oeuvre.

Daniel Hannan is a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament.

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8 Comments To "Ayn Shrugged"

#1 Comment By KalkiDas On August 21, 2012 @ 8:40 am

I can completely understand what it is he is saying and she does hammer the same idea over and over again. I think for a lot of people, you sometimes need to repeat things to. Though I enjoyed her writing style, not just because the message, but the style in of itself. Since reading her books, I find myself trying to match characters in life to the types in her books.

#2 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On August 22, 2012 @ 10:20 am

For all the hoo-haw over Atlas, it is one long, fussy, mean, narrow minded whine. If there is one thing a true conservative is not; it is an idealist. As an “ideal” text for extolling the virtues of conservatism; it is a joke.

#3 Comment By libertarian jerry On August 24, 2012 @ 12:35 am

You can say what you want,both pro and con,about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. She did,in this magnum opus,leave us with 2 very important points. 1. That the mind of man is the main contribution to the world we live in today. The agricultural,technological and industrial advancements in the last 250 years of world history,due mainly to individual men,has increased the standard of living of mankind to the point that these 250 years of progress overshadow everything that had come to pass over the previous 6000 years of civilization. 2. That the people that create real wealth and progress,not the crony capitalism of government favors and insider trading,should not feel guilty over their financial success. The age old battle for political power by collectivists and socialists of all stripes has been fought by political demagogues using the weapons of Class Warfare. These weapons,used throughout history up to and including this current election,usually revolve around the use of envy and guilt. Ayn Rand,in Atlas Shrugged, exposed the use of envy and guilt used by her fictional villains. By doing this she demonstrated how these 2 weapons were overcome by her fictional heroes, who triumphed in the end. Ayn Rand’s gift to those who believe in self reliance,self responsibility,entrepreneurship,the work ethic and ambition to create,often risking everything,a business enterprise that 4 out of 5 times fails. But if it succeeds that entrepreneur is entitled to the financial rewards of that same enterprise. All this nonsense about “giving back to the community” and paying ones “fair share” of taxes only reflects on the exploitation of the businessman by the the political parasites in the Political Class who either crave power or are too lazy and or incompetent to create their own businesses. In other words,Ayn Rand made us feel proud and not guilty of being successful in life. To this we owe Ayn Rand our thanks.

#4 Comment By Faiyaz Hardwarewala On September 13, 2013 @ 3:40 pm

On reading the subtitle of the article: “Objectively speaking, Rand’s opus is a literary disaster”, I expected the usual smears and misrepresentations of the book that have been evident for so long.

But from what I read, it seems that the author is really found of her ideas (and the book, in the core sense), yet feels guilty or ashamed to acknowledge it. He hides behind trivial points and issue that really don’t matter in a work of art.

As a work of art, what matters is that book moves you, has such a strong emotional impact on the reader ( even the ones who disagree with it, have a violently negative response to it)…it not just moves you, it emotionally shakes you, rattles you, making you loose awareness of the day or time, or the need for food or water…you are so spellbound that you just can’t put it down. And that is the hallmark of a great work of art, not a ‘literary disaster’.

On the other hand, the test for a bad piece of art is that it leaves its audience unmoved, unaffected, fails to stir anything within them.

Hence, I say that the author of the above article ‘hides behind trivial points and issues that really don’t matter in a work of art.’

And as for the subtitle, it is totally misleading and inappropriate to the article, and appears to have been implanted by someone with not-so-honest intentions.

#5 Comment By Steven C. Buttgereit On June 28, 2016 @ 10:54 pm

I have been a great fan of Daniel Hannan, however I am very disappointed in Mr. Hannan in this case. Not so much for the content, while I disagree with Mr. Hannan on the literary criticism I can understand some degree of his complaint.

However, where Mr. Hannan, for the first time, truly disappoints me is that he takes Rand to task for “irksome failures of research” and points to examples. Later, Mr. Hannan criticizes the passage which begins, “Francisco held his voice flat and steady…[clip],” as an “absurd passage”. Only trouble is, that passage doesn’t appear in Atlas Shrugged. Searching the internet and I only find the first part of Mr. Hannan’s absurd passage in this very article and a comment on a forum stating that the quote in this article doesn’t exist in the book.

I’m not sure exactly why Mr. Hannan feels that Ayn Rand must conduct proper research and he doesn’t, nor do I know where Mr. Hannan found his referred to “absurd passage”. But at the very least Mr. Hannan could stand to do a bit of research himself… and at worst he should be taken to task for creating a complaint from whole cloth.

#6 Comment By RalphB On April 11, 2017 @ 11:41 am

I agree with Steven C. Buttgereit.

Mr. Hannan could not have read _Atlas_, the novel he is criticizing, and still believed that the quoted absurd passage was really in there. The Briticism alone, “he really shouldn’t have done,” gives it away as not by Rand, so it appears that Hannan was punked by reading some Briton’s attempted parody. It speaks very poorly of his wit and his character to have made such a fool of himself.

Next time read the book.

#7 Comment By Bill Brent On April 11, 2017 @ 1:28 pm

I knew that passage wasn’t from Atlas Shrugged the moment I read it. Ayn Rand wouldn’t write that kind of maudlin crap about having “the eyes of a man who had had an extra muffin at tea-time, knowing that he really shouldn’t have done…”, especially in any description of Francisco. One wonders what Hannan actually read, because it doesn’t seem to have been Atlas Shrugged. Perhaps a Monty Python parody of the book, or Guardian review?

#8 Comment By MetaCynic On April 11, 2017 @ 2:41 pm

I think that critics of Rand’s literary style are comparing it to what it is not. It’s like seeing failings in a Ferrari because it lacks the attributes of a Ford.

Atlas Shrugged is written in the Romantic tradition of characters – both good and evil – depicted as larger than life. Everything is amplified and pushed to an extreme of black and white. Unlike real life, hardly anyone in the novel acts out of character. These are not people and events one would normally encounter in everyday life.

That’s the point. Atlas Shrugged should be read as an abstract highbrow comic book populated with cartoonish super heroes and super villains of conflicting philosophies battling for control of the planet.