It took two weeks and some serious sleepy-time, but last night I managed to reach the end of Part I of Atlas Shrugged. Thick enough to be a book all by its lonesome, Part I has told me an awful lot about the author, her intentions for the book and what I have to look forward to in the next two parts.
Just to bring everyone up to speed, I would recommend they read my initial thoughts on the book, written down after reading comparatively little. You may or may not be surprised to learn that my assessment was not at all off the mark. If anything, the traits Atlas Shrugged demonstrated early on have only become more marked as the book continued.
Where to start? Ordinarily I would take some time at the outset of a review (though this isn’t an full-fledged evaluation), to discuss the positive aspects of a book. Atlas Shrugged‘s good points are so trivial that I could be accused of damning with faint praise, so I’m considering just skipping this part and getting down to all the things I don’t like about it.
Maybe it’s best if I begin with a general recap of what has gone on.
Published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged posits a world not too different from that of the mid- to late-’50s from a technological standpoint, only infused with a sort of paranoiac’s view of nascent socialism. Given that Atlas Shrugged came out during the tail end of the Red Scare, it’s perhaps not too surprising that the book would be flavored by the rich alarmism of McCarthyism. The Russians were coming to get us all back then, and if they couldn’t take us by force, they would overthrow us from within by overwhelming our values with their own. In reality none of this ever happened, but Atlas Shrugged shows one woman’s idea of what might occur if the commies were successful.
The America of Atlas Shrugged is falling apart, as competent people from all walks of life are abruptly retiring from their jobs or flat-out disappearing. Fine manufactured goods are nearly impossible to find. Heroine Dagny Taggart and her railroad, Taggert Transcontinental, is collapsing despite her best efforts to maintain standards and profitability. Our hero, Hank Rearden, struggles under the onerous regulations enforced upon his steel-producing business, even though he’s created a stronger, lighter, cheaper version of steel called Rearden Metal. They are, in the parlance of Ayn Rand, producers. Everyone else is a “looter,” and none of Rand’s upstanding business figures miss an opportunity to refer to them as such.
On the one hand I can’t fault Rand for some of her ideas. The basic concept that we should all work as hard as we can and try to excel to our own benefit is one you’ll find almost universally shared. Unfortunately she’s not able to stop there, not just looking down upon the less fortunate (or the totally incapable), but wasting no chance to vilify them for their failure to live up to her standards.
Take a scene where Rearden’s mother encourages Rearden to hire his shiftless brother to a job at the steel mill. It’s a selfish request, putting Rearden on the hook for paying a salary to a guy who knows nothing about the steel business. We can all go along with that, I think. But in a typically Randian fashion, Rearden’s mother then takes this moment to give a lecture about the nature of charity. Unfortunately, Rand’s idea of what charity is matches no definition advanced by anyone, namely that charity is only charity if it’s given to people who don’t deserve it. And in Rand’s estimation, someone who needs something doesn’t actually deserve anything.
I’m not saying Rearden should have capitulated in this instance, but his unwillingness to compromise on the principle of the right man for the right job is cheapened by this straw-man argument that we should give things to people regardless of their need. It’s already been established that Rearden’s brother is well taken care of without a job, so it’s not like he needs a desk and an office to better himself.
I mentioned in my first post that Rand uses very obvious techniques to establish who is “good” and who is “bad.” This continues throughout the first part of the novel. People in grinding poverty deserve to be poor and miserable because they are ugly (physical manifestation of their unworthiness) and because they lack the wherewithal to improve upon their condition. In some cases this is an entirely unfair depiction, as with a family who lives in a factory town suffering from the closure of its only industry, while in others the poor person in question is so actively unpleasant — and throwing out more straw-man arguments about charity that make no sense — that we as readers are supposed to react to them badly.
In Atlas Shrugged Rand recognizes two virtues: profit and selfishness (of a kind). If you lack the ability to earn yourself or someone else a profit, you’re a waste of space. Likewise, if you stop to consider anyone else but yourself, your whims and needs, you are lacking as a human being. This latter doesn’t hold up too well when you consider the wretched poor people Dagny and Rearden encounter, but I suppose their selfishness is tainted because they’re constantly extolling the virtue of helping one’s fellow man. They don’t have the right kind of selfishness.
It’s all impossible to take seriously because it’s not a serious discussion. If you want someone to consider your point of view thoughtfully, you have to be able to make that case honestly. That doesn’t happen here. Atlas Shrugged makes one side perfectly heroic and the other side perfectly bad. Any attempts to extol a certain set of values are done so on a backdrop of misrepresentation, which has the effect of making the argument weaker, if not entirely invalid.
I could go on, but the rest of what I can say has been said before: the prose is ridiculously overwritten, the dialogue leaden, the characters unlikable. I find it’s not possible to enjoy even the quasi-mystery of the threadbare plot because of all the detractions. It probably doesn’t help that I know what’s coming already, but I can see how someone with the right sort of uncharitable mind could get past all the book’s shortcomings and derive some pleasure from the proceedings.
You’ll hear back from me when I get to the end of Part II. Wish me luck.