Before I started reading this book, I really, really wanted to like it. I held a desire to say something contrary to so many of the reviews I had read of it; I wanted to absorb the politics of the novel and, even if I disagreed with them, find a better way of understanding Rand’s “objectivism” nonetheless. After all, I love the novels of Jean-Paul Sarte while finding most of his politics appalling – mostly but not limited to, his defence of Stalin long past a point where that was an even remotely defensible intellectual position given what was known about Soviet crimes already. Yet I still think L’Age De Raison is a masterpiece, even though Sartre’s politics are inevitably weaved into the work. I can love a political novel whose politics I disagree with.
I wanted to be a contrarian on this one. To be able to say, ‘Yes, Rand’s politics are weird, but I found the book engaging nonetheless’. I was eager to enjoy Atlas Shrugged as a novel. It’s inordinate length not only didn’t deter me, but was one of the things about the work that I found interesting; I have a fascination with novels which are epic in scale. A lot of my favourites fall into the category – Infinite Jest (yes, I’ve read the whole thing and genuinely love it), War and Peace, A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu.
All right, I’ve stalled long enough: I really, really hated Atlas Shrugged. Detested it to the very core of my soul. In fact, I am baffled as to how anyone in the world can like it. To expand on what I mean by this, take another example: I’ve never really liked Ulysses by Joyce. There are portions of Joyce’s book I enjoy, but I can never get into the thing as a whole somehow. It isn’t the experimentalism of the prose or the structure that’s the problem for me – that’s actually the thing I like most about it. It’s just I can never really absorb Joyce’s writing; his Catholic guilt thing just bounces off me (I was raised Catholic but rejected it at a very early age, so I struggle emotionally to relate to it haunting you into adulthood).
Yet I still get that Ulysses is a great work of art. I understand how there could be a whole group of people for whom this was considered the best thing ever. On the flip side, I can also understand why a lot of people find Infinite Jest indigestible – I love the book because at heart it is about addiction, the things ambition can drive a person to do, strange geopolitics and dysfunctional families. Those happen to be topics I am endlessly fascinated by; if you were far less interested in those things, I can understand why delving into them for over a thousand pages might not be enjoyable.
Atlas Shrugged, however, is a whole different kettle of fish. It is, simply put, a lousy novel. As in, it fails to do what any novel worth the name has to do just to tick some basic boxes: the world building is awful, the prose is turgid, it is completely devoid of either humour or drama, all of the characters apart from Dagny Taggart are one or two-dimensional at best, and the only reason Dagny works as a fully fleshed out character is because she is clearly just a fantasy version of Rand herself. But worse than all of that, it’s incredibly boring. If I was going to try and compare Atlas Shrugged to any other piece of narrative based art I have ever previously experienced, it would be the Star Wars prequels, in particular Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. This is because a lot of Atlas Shrugged consists of people either walking around or sitting down and explaining the plot to each other for a long old while.
The dialogue is almost as bad in Atlas Shrugged as it is in Lucas’ turn of the century turds. Take this one line – it’s in a very early scene in the book. A character named Eddie Willers has shown up unannounced in the office of James Taggart, brother of Dagny and, well, the dialogue will tell you for me:
“I appreciate our childhood friendship, Eddie, but do you think that that should entitle you to walk in here unannounced whenever you wish? Considering your own rank, shouldn’t you remember that I am the president of Taggart Transcontinental?”
At least with the Star Wars prequels, Lucas was stuck with trying to get exposition across in the medium of film, which is always tricky. With Atlas Shrugged, it’s like no one ever told Rand that in a novel you have loads of ways of getting information to the audience. One might have been to simply insert a paragraph explaining James and Eddie’s relationship with one another. If Rand wanted to be more creative than that, she could have had there be more straightforward dialogue with no direct mention of what the power dynamic between the two characters was, letting us infer it by what takes place. Just please, I thought at this point, on page 11 of a 1,168 page book, please don’t have this be the way the story is told from here on out.
No such luck. The plot revolves around a bunch of railroad lines in some weird version of America that is often described by reviewers as dystopian – but as far as dystopias go, it’s very poorly established. It seems to involve a version of the USA in the near future from when the book was written – 1957 – in which the country has become mildly more socially democratic (at least until the end, when it all goes a little haywire). There is some nationalisation of things like railroads – which features heavily given the focus of it within the plot of the book – but for the most part, it’s difficult to see what’s so terrible about this reality. Rand clearly thinks it’s terrible – we have lots of characters talking to each other about how it’s a living hell – but there is no indication as to why that really is the case across the novel’s massive length. Shortages of some material goods are discussed, as is the fact that there is an economic depression, but we never feel it since almost all of the novel takes place in the offices and homes of the dynastically wealthy, and they seem materially unaffected by any of it. At least, until the final couple hundred pages when they lay it on thick, but by then its too late to be affecting.
A great number of the smartest and most talented people have deserted society to live in “Galt’s Gulch” (aka Atlantis), named after John Galt, the still living alpha male who first organised the removal of these hyper-productive members of society to take their enormous talents out of the mainstream, to…..well, do some quasi-random stuff that is supposed to make Galt’s Gulch utopia, but we are never really made to understand why Dagny thinks it is so superior to the rest of America as portrayed earlier in the novel. The big difference is there is some sort of new currency and everyone prefers to be paid in gold and it’s really unclear as to how the economy of the gulch actually functions. It’s supposed to be wonderful since everyone only pays for people’s objective time and effort, although how this works in practice to make life better for all the poor geniuses who ran away from everything isn’t clear. In fact, a lot of their lives seem materially worse than what they would otherwise have been back in the rest of America.
Let’s compare Atlas Shrugged with 1984, another book about a dystopian future which has a political point to get across. In the first chapter of Orwell’s masterwork, we are introduced to Winston, our protagonist, and see through his decrepit lifestyle how lousy things are in Oceania in the year 1984 first-hand. We are introduced to his job – continually changing the past on behalf of the Ministry of Truth so that history is always in line with what The Party, which controls every aspect of human life, wants to be the narrative. We are also told about all of the other ministries, their names handily introducing us to doublethink. The idea of telescreens is established – two-way TVs that monitor your every movement. Finally, we see Winston starting his diary and understand, since the world has been so effectively brought to life already for us already, what a revolutionary act this is in a place where just having any independent thought whatsoever is a crime, never mind committing a series of them to an external, permanent form.
The world of 1984 and the character we are going to follow the story through are completely set up in the first fifteen pages of the novel. You also understand how exactly freedom is curtailed in the world of the book and the real consequences of that fact. The tension at heart of the novel is Winston’s irrepressible individuality rubbing up against the harsh collectivism of life under Big Brother.
By contrast, in Atlas Shrugged, the best and the brightest aren’t directly persecuted but rather storm out of society altogether in a huff out of their own free will. And it’s not really clear why. If they are so alpha, how did the mediocre ones manage to get so ahead of them in society anyhow? How did the solidly average collectively manage to take over everything under the noses of these ubermensch in the first place? How and why did the brilliant alphas allow it to happen? Part of the problem, I suspect, sits with the fact that Rand seems to think that mild social democracy and the USSR at the height of the purges are essentially exactly the same thing, both being societies that hold back the brilliant from doing whatever the hell they feel like. Yet in portraying everyone who is in charge of America as useless and without talent, she has unwittingly set up a major flaw in her narrative – how did this society become what it is if the John Galts of this world are so flawless?
It’s like Rand couldn’t bring herself to understand that someone like Josef Stalin was a brilliant alpha himself; it’s why he was able to manoeuvre to the top of the pack and have all of his rivals fold around him. The problem with Stalin wasn’t that he was mediocre and not up to much; it’s that he was a ruthless, ingenious psychopath who operated in a system with no rules, nor any checks and balances on power. Checks and balances that Rand seems to actively look down upon, seeing as how she seems to view a society in which the most talented and ambitious are allowed to do pretty much whatever they like with as little regulation as possible as being ideal.
If Atlas Shrugged were set in a remotely believable world, John Galt wouldn’t have moved to a cloaked-from-view gulch and set up some rival society – given his ambitions, talents for invention and leadership, as well as his charms and other high-functioning capabilities, he would have taken over society altogether and installed himself as dictator. By the rationale of the book and the ideology that powers it, wouldn’t this be of benefit to everyone in society if the charming and ambitious took over completely?
Yet not only does Galt not do this, the powers that be torture him with electricity in a bid to force him to take over America as its dictator – and he refuses. This makes zero sense in the context of the novel. If Galt thought society was so terrible he had to leave it and set up a parallel community, why wouldn’t he want to mould America into the country he clearly had a vision for it being if given the chance? He could have taken over and then made America the libertarian fantasy he wanted by deregulating the shit out of everything. Instead, he escapes back to the gulch only to then announce at the very end of the novel that all the alphas are returning to the world again – on his command. Why, I just couldn’t tell you. It is one of the least satisfying ends to a book I’ve ever read.
In the real world – our actual world, I mean – capitalism isn’t good because it allows the talented to do whatever the hell they want; it’s good because it forces the talented to channel their abilities into something economically useful. Here’s one of my main problems with the ethos of Rand as presented in Atlas Shrugged: if being selfish is always completely justified, then why exactly were Stalin or Pol Pot or Hitler or any other dictator in human history for that matter wrong? Sure, those maniacs just mentioned were all powered by an ideology, yet they ultimately thought they knew better than anyone else in the world about everything, including who should live and die. The notion that selfishness somehow always manifests itself in a positive way and never has any direct, negative impact on others is deeply naive about human nature at best.
I can see exactly why attempts to adapt Atlas Shrugged for screen have failed – having a bunch of boring people talk about trains for hours on end in the service of a completely unfunctional ideology wouldn’t make for riveting visual entertainment. The people who should hate this book more than anyone else are, oddly enough, the libertarians who praise it so heavily. If the book has any function whatsoever, it is reads as an unintentional denunciation of laissez-faire capitalism.
To summarise, Atlas Shrugged is one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. It is artless, one-dimensional, flat as hell and has nothing to recommend it. As far as its politics go, I think they impede the novel only in as much as Rand just had a poor grasp on what made humans tick and why societies work they way they do, and this fed into both her novel writing and her politics.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.
Isn’t it one of Saj’s favourite books?
I know he loves “The Fountainhead” – he reads it once a year, apparently. No idea on “Atlas Shrugged” but you’d have to think he’s a fan. Not read “The Fountainhead” – and after slogging through a thousand plus pages of this one, don’t think that’s going to be top of my reading list any time soon.