As I stood on the precipice of Atlas Shrugged after a lifetime of merely saying the expected, snide things about Ayn Rand, I found myself consumed with foreboding. I already enjoy listening to Rush. I have a surprising amount of money for someone with my background and skill-set. I have the unwarranted ego of a white, female Kanye West without musical ability. Moreover, I have terrible natural instincts.*
*Evidence of the Latter
1. I thought Clinton was telling us the truth about That Woman.
2. I thought John Edwards was nobly devoted to Elizabeth.
3. At the age of six, while watching a documentary about JFK, I concluded that Jackie did it.
4. I dated three men in a row who “didn’t think Spinal Tap was all that funny.”
And then, of course, knowing these things about myself, the great fear: what if this is actually an amazingly convincing book? Will I become an Objectivist?
That didn’t happen. HOWEVER, let’s start with the positive stuff, maybe? Sometimes the way we make very funny fun of Ayn Rand is a little gross. It is! It’s a little gross. First, and Saunders does this too, even though he is absolutely a Gift From the Universe, enough with the rape jokes. Don’t do that. I know why you want to, obviously, because THESE FUCKING BOOKS, RIGHT, but don’t. Second, yeah, she was not attractive. She was an unattractive woman. But so was, you know, Bella Abzug, and if someone says shit about it to me, they’re gonna lose some teeth. Not literally, or anything, but I might Tweet something rude in their general direction (throws down carpal tunnel wrist guard, demands satisfaction). It’s not important, you know? You can spend the rest of your life talking about how bad or dangerous or naive or WHATEVER Atlas Shrugged is, and never need to say, “oh, she was kind of toad-looking, so tee-hee.” Moving on.
I really wanted to be extremely open-minded about this novel. Obviously because we take our Classic Trash deathly seriously, but also because people who are super into Atlas Shrugged are the sort of people who send nasty emails about how you are a parasitic Communist who couldn’t make a better kind of steel to save your life. Guilty as charged, curiously combative Randians! But I feel as though I have given it a fair shake. I was a reed, bending in the wind. My mind was deliberately vacant, waiting to be filled. My iTunes was playing “Closer to the Heart.”
Why is this book so long? Longer than any other book you’ve ever read? Because Ayn Rand has to say what color absolutely everything in the world is at any given moment. Bright gold! Fresh green! Clean white! Blinding white! Glowing brown! Dead blue! Fire is red and steel is grey!
(Wait, wait. Wait. Is that just being mean? Would I still be eye-rolling if those bits were jammed into an Annie Dillard book, or some random prose poem by William Carlos Williams? Yes, yes, I would, but it’s important we engage in frequent Intellectual Honesty exercises.)
But, no, really, enough with the colors. The colors were what first made me realize This Whole Thing is Just Batman. New York has never been more Gotham-y than in Atlas Shrugged. Our protagonist Dagny (!) takes that first train ride into the city, with Taggart Transcontinental towering over everything, and it is just too Wayne Enterprises for words. The city is grimy! Dark satanic mills! Smelting! Urban alienation! A dark knight must rise! The people need him! Who is he?
Motherfucking John Galt. Jesus Christ. After a few hundred pages, the question “Who is John Galt?” becomes “When is this asshole going to show up?” It’s like watching a meme take off that you haven’t personally committed to, like “Overly Attached Girlfriend” or “Shit Women Say.” Oh, is that an awkward metaphor? Did you not enjoy it? Then do not read this book, because UGH the oak tree is your childhood and GAH your lonely apartment is the prow of a ship and WHY are you telling me that cigarettes are like holding the power of fire in your hand? It is too much. It is just too much. Obviously, it’s a polemic, so you’re going to have to grit your teeth and take it, but, then, is this not our great question? Shall we write polemical novels? Is it acceptable to write polemical novels? Are they ever any good? Rand, of course, insists that Atlas Shrugged is a love story. Which, okay. I was happy that Hank Rearden cheated on his horrible wife with Dagny. I was kind of happy for Hank and Dagny. Dagny clearly has a lot of shit to put up with at work, and Hank is surrounded by losers, so it’s nice they found each other, prior to John Galt weirding everything up. PLUS, Hank doesn’t rape Dagny, which immediately makes this the Free to Be… You and Me of Rand’s oeuvre.
And so we come to Objectivism. Aw, man. It’s just not that compelling, I’m afraid. I don’t even think it’s evil, just… meh. And it’s kind of adolescent and goofy. And it’s obviously meant to be taken seriously, but it’s just so The Last Scene of Fight Club, and everything, that I feel obliged to come up with a workable alternative for the young people seeking some kind of similar ethos: try to be good at things and take some initiative in the workplace, or whatever, but don’t think that gives you the right to feed stray cats into ATMs. Go forth and build some railroads. Maybe be so good at your individual thing that people might notice if you went on a symbolic strike? That sounds like it could work. Okay, let’s talk this out!
• Ahhhhh, so many movies and movie attempts. Let’s do our casting suggestions! So many hot men, so little time. So many bitchy ladies and one superior one.
• Ugh, you just know that all the past, present, and future film adaptations will involve agonizing billboards asking us “WHO IS JOHN GALT?” and then your eyeballs will fall out.
• I don’t like Catcher in the Rye, either, in case I didn’t mention it. Wah-wah people are so fake.
• HOW ABOUT THAT ELECTION, HUH?
• Did you go through a Rand thing? Are you still in a Rand thing?
• Are you better at what you do than other people are?
• Was “parasitic Mexicans” actually a plot point? On a related note, did ANYONE not see that the Mexican government was going to nationalize that railroad? It shouldn’t take Dagny to see it.
• Hey, Argo was pretty fun. Even if, like this Canadian, you sat there grinding your teeth like HEY BITCH WE’RE THE ONES WITH SKIN IN THIS GAME.
• What are the good polemical novels? And do not say Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it is truly a terrible novel, though I am obviously happy it was written and widely read.
Previously in Classic Trash: Robert Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land
Or read more about Ayn Rand (and Alan Greenspan!) here