Saturday, May 14, 2011
Atlas Shrugged: Part 1
No, this is not a review of the movie "Atlas Shrugged: Part 1". That film holds no interest to me, since everybody has already agreed that it completely fails to adapt Ayn Rand's message. No this is part 1 of a review of "Atlas Shrugged". You see, this book is so huge that I must break down the review into two parts. Also, I cannot continue to read this book any longer in silence. I will not sit through another word without a response. There is simply too much to say now, I can't imagine where I'll be once I reach the end - if I ever reach the end.
"Atlas Shrugged" is the great dystopia novel of Ayn Rand*, one of the most controversial authors of the 20th century. Having suffered in the Twenties through the birth of the Soviet Union, Rand became a serious anti-communist. Not content to merely prove its corruption or its impracticality, Rand instead decided to prove that communism in its very moral foundation was corrupt. Societies and individuals should not base themselves on helping others, rather the best way the human race should be run is with Enlightened Self-Interest. (I'm giving the best explanation I can of Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, which like most 20th century philosophical movements is filled to the brim with complex jargon and bizarre metaphysical haggling.) Altruism, the idea that the service of others is the highest moral goal, is according to Ayn Rand, pure evil and destructive. One should work for the self primarily, as this is the only method that mankind creates anything of value. I'm not going to say that Objectivism is entirely without merit, though its a bit too extreme for me. To say that giving to others is pure evil is about as ludicrous as the idea that working for yourself is evil.
"Atlas Shrugged" exists as only half a story about characters and their actions. The other half is a poorly disguised philosophical treatise about how Objectivism is awesome. Every character exists only partially as a true character, they are forced to fit Ayn Rand's scheme of the human race. Either they're unbelievable workaholic Supermen who can build industrial empires overnight or ridiculous incoherent joke villains who are easily the dumbest characters ever put to print. Obviously then, "Atlas Shrugged" is not going to be a good book, but goddamn if it isn't hilarious. This is going to be a long one, trust me. But it won't compare to the massive size of this book - I think the weight that Atlas was supposed to shrug off was the weight of Rand's prose.
I'm not going to say I came into "Atlas Shrugged" expecting a good book. As a matter of fact, Ayn Rand and her disciples rather disturb me. Its only a short step from "work for yourself not others" to "weaker people can go die". She embodies all of the worst elements of libertarianism. Personally I despise government intervention in our lives, but I also hate corporate intervention as well, which is why I like to play them off against each other. I can see why removing annoying red tape is a good thing, but I'd also like to keep companies from tearing down mountains for coal and poisoning rivers while mistreating their employees like dictators. Also since altruism is an act very difficult for human beings to perform it is something we should value. I won't say sell your house and feed the lepers (I'm not Jesus), but I will say don't be a dick and help those around you as much as you can. Its far too easy to be selfish in this world, which is why it would be a very bad thing to create a philosophy that glorifies total self-interest. So "Atlas Shrugged" had a lot to prove from me, somebody who views Objectivism as being hardly much better than Communism.
To my surprise, it was a bit better written than I expected. I was at least able to read it without putting the book down every thirty seconds in exasperation, like the horrible right-wing Christian "Left Behind" series. Let's not joke around here, there are still plenty of lines in this book that are unintentionally hilarious. Not to mention that characters routinely talk in soliloquies at least the length of "To be or not to be", and usually much longer. Doesn't anybody know how to shut up in "Atlas Shrugged"? But on the other hand, its better that I read "Atlas Shrugged" rather than Ayn Rand's earlier book, "The Fountainhead", which is the story of an architect battling for his right to build awful Modern Architecture buildings**. By the time I finished "The Fountainhead" I'd probably set it on fire rather than review it.
The main plot of "Atlas Shrugged" is a bleak period in the near future - or least what would have been the near future in 1957, more on this later - where American is dominated by stupidity. Technically it seems to be on the road to communism, but more importantly the main source of power seems to lie in being as dumb as humanly possible. Failing companies are celebrated, companies that make money are hated. Idiotic philosophies such as nihilism and irrationalism are the currency of the realm. As a matter of fact, the scenes of the villains in this books are less frightening and more hilarious because it is completely unbelievable that any person could ever be so stupid - they sound like characters out of a Monty Python sketch. The Stupids babble about "love", "the greater good", and "practicality" while actually being filled with hate, ruinous to the nation, and completely impractical. The rest of the world is dominated by incompetent failing People's States and soon enough America is about to join them in a new Dark Age. Society is collapsing. Opposing the Stupids, who are capable of living only by passing increasingly moronic economic restrictions that serve only to steal wealth, are Ayn Rand's special race of Supermen, of which is the main protagonist, Dagny Taggart. The limitless creative power of the Supermen are the only thing holding the economy together. However, somebody is stealing all the Supermen, forcing them to willingly give up their life's work for a mysterious purpose that nobody dare understand.
By the way, Who is John Galt? That's the question on everybody's mind, though nobody really seems sure of what the question means, or its true implications. Because the Stupids are so stupid, they refuse to even acknowledge basic truths like "the world is going to the crapheap". "Who is John Galt?" is the question people ask when somebody asks a question that should not be answered - the very idea of an answer fills the Stupids with fear. At this point in the reading, John Galt has not revealed himself, but thanks to some of Ayn Rand's overly smug hints, I know he's the man that invented a magical engine that creates energy out of basically nothing. He's also almost certainly the man taking out all the Supermen.
Unfortunately in this universe the only characters that Ayn Rand actually bothered to create are either Supermen or Stupids, but both are equally flat, sadly. Supermen are ultra-efficient workaholics that fortunately have no immediate loved ones so they can spend all their days working and forging magic metals. Don't worry though, the Supermen are still all physically attractive. The Stupids don't have families either it seems (there are no children at all in this monster of a book) but they're all fat glassy-eyed sputtering idiots who can only be semi-competent when it comes to ruining things. They can't find oil but they sure can manipulate the system to turn American into a communist dictatorship. Very few characters have serious arcs, they're all basically in the same place philosophically as they begin the book. Yeah, one guy might learn that his wife is a bitch and he should dump her ass, but she was never all that important to him anyway. You never get a sense as to why some characters are Supermen and some are Stupids - it seems to be pre-determined at birth. There's no psychological foundation for either world view. Why would somebody make themselves willfully ignorant and serve only destruction? Ayn Rand can't answer this question. Most characters exist in independent bubbles where they really cannot actually make much of an impact on each other. This is because nobody actually cares about other people in this book, which is why they're all friendless, nearly sexless, and family-less.
For the rest of this review I'm going to take part in character studies in several of the most important figures in "Atlas Shrugged". The plot, even after 500 pages and God-only-knows how many words has moved in an incredibly slow pace. Yeah, we're much closer to the economic oblivion than at the start, but so little has actually happened. A lot of talking, but only one character seems to have moved anywhere in his life, and he's still virtually the same as in the start. My paperback copy of "Atlas Shrugged" is has more mass than my copies of "1984", "Brave New World", "Fahrenheit 451", and "Feed" put together, yet has as much action than the first 100 pages of any of those novels. And "Atlas Shrugged" has nowhere near as much world-building details than any of its rivals. So in Part 2 we'll deal with the plot issues and the themes, for now I'll just talk characters:
Dagny Taggart is the main character of the novel. Like many Ayn Rand creations she has a name that is both weird and really fun to say at the same time***. Dagny is the heiress to Taggart Transcontinental, an illustrious rail line that is the last competent rail service on Earth mostly because of Dagny herself. Of course, even that rail line is failing thanks to her brother Jim, the real man in charge and one of the leaders of the Stupids. Dagny exists for one purpose only: to run her trains. She refuses to accept the pre-feminist ideals of her society, even the progressives all agree she should be in a kitchen someplace making the men sandwiches. Instead she's hard-smoking, humorless business bitch who will save Taggart Transcontinental if it means hammering in the rails herself. So Dagny is constantly working to save the nation, even while the Stupids ruin every bit of progress she makes. In that search, she's also beginning to unravel the mystery that is John Galt. She eventually gets into a relationship Hank Reardan, the Superman of Steel, where they enjoy having rough sex. Though Rearden and Dagny are lovers and the closest thing to friends you'll find this novel, they constantly assure each other they're only out for themselves. There's one hilarious passage where Hank buys Dagny a lovely dress, then tells her he didn't buy it for her, but only because he wanted to be turned-on by her body in the dress. And Dagny takes this as the best compliment ever. The only actress who could ever play Dagny Taggart is Eva Green, as she is perfect for the role. Eva Green's face is a constant smile of semi-arrogance, I still can't believe she let James Bond rule her. But in the movie they got some nobody actress.
Hank Rearden is basically the same character as Dagny, only with a penis. He's stuck in a loveless marriage with Lillian, a woman that he does not or even attempt to understand. Hank only married her because he thought she was hot, and now she refuses him sex just to torture him. Interestingly, Rearden is unique in that he's the only character to have a family: he has a mom, a brother, a wife, a best friend, but of course, no children. Of course, he hates his family and they hate him. Because rather than giving his family much mind he spends all his time making steel and fantastical new alloys that can do anything. What Ayn Rand wants Hank's big discovery to be is that he doesn't need to suffer his family's judgment. When I first read Hank's first chapter I thought he was some kind of vile sociopath - what kind of man has such hate for his own loved ones? Even his mom can't stand him. Turns out his family is actually infected with Stupid, so I suppose Hank is morally superior. Early on his brother asks for a donation to a charity, but when Hank gives him it, he's surprise to see his brother isn't made happy for it. His brother explains, the donation isn't for me, its for the charity - and this thought utterly disgusts Hank. Rand actively speaks out against charities in this book. I'm pretty sure he's going to kick them all into the street to die by the end of the book, and Ayn Rand will portray this as a heroic act. Hank eventually gets into a relationship with Dagny, feels a lot of guilt for betraying his wife, then decides he shouldn't feel that way because his wife is a bitch.
Lillian Rearden is the character that I've spent the most potential time trying to understand. At first I thought she legitimately loved Hank despite of or perhaps even because of his coldness to his family. No, she's actually just out to ruin him for no reason because she's a Stupid. I wish there was more to Lillian but there isn't. Ayn Rand just wrote a terrible character to do terrible things.
Jim Taggart is a male Lillian Rearden, they're both flat idiots who can only ruin things. About a third of the way through the book he marries Cherryl Brooks, a lower class shopgirl. (I've decided that Cherryl Brooks has the same New York accent as Harley Quinn from "Batman".) Cherryl has the potentional to represent the average person's perspective on the book's events, but Ayn Rand seems to find her character boring so she hardly shows up at all. The chapter that seems to have been made for her is hijacked by other characters' POVs. Back to Jim, the author never does explain why he's a Stupid but Dagny is Wonder Woman. They grew up in the same house, had the same friends, and got basically the same education. I can guess Jim is incompetent because he was given Taggart Transcontinental but meanwhile Dagny had to fight to control it. This is a question that doesn't actually interest Ayn Rand, sadly.
Eddie Willers is Dagny Taggart's right hand man and the most average man in the universe. Ayn Rand designed him purposefully to be unexceptional and without ambition. His only goal in life is to serve Dagny because he feels that's right and he's secretly in love with her. Even his name is boring: "Eddie Willers". Can you imagine a name more mundane? There's an intense cruelty in the character of Eddie Willers - he's nobody. He'll never get Dagny because nobody notices him and even the author forgets about him for most of the book. He's not going to go anywhere because Rand forget to write him some testicles. How could you ever create somebody so bland and grey? Much like Lillian Rearden, I find Eddie Willers interesting just because Rand doesn't want us to see them as interesting. I root for them because they never are going to succeed. In a universe of Supermen, Eddie is easily the most captivating character because he's somebody who actually can have a character arc. He's the one who would have to become a hero, he isn't born a Mary Sue. But Ayn Rand will never let him become a hero, he's just nobody. Eddie Willers is played by Dr. Big Love from "House" in the movie. Dr. Big Love is Black though, and this has upset a lot of incredibly stupid people who thought that Eddie Willers was White. As usual my response to those people is this: shut the fuck up.
Fransisco d'Anconia (or "d'Anaconda" as I call him) is the most Mary Sue character yet, which is impressive considering he's fighting with Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden for that title. D'Anaconda is a sauve Latino mastermind in the copper industry. Whenever d'Anaconda shows up I picture Antonio Banderas dressed a matador. The guy belongs on a romance novel cover half-naked. He is utterly without fault or weakness of any kind and there is nothing he cannot do. In the past, he was Dagny's teenage lover and working to make the world a better place. Then he joined with the conspiracy to steal all of the competent people in the world, and decided to destroy his copper company in the most dramatic way possible. While Jim and the other Stupids invest in his ventures, d'Anaconda turns them all into failures as a practical joke. Fransisco is having a wild white-hot bromance with Hank Rearden, but I rather doubt Ayn Rand was ever so forward-thinking as to accept homosexuality. Sadly the Copper x Steel pairing seems to have a lot more heart and soul than Hank's actual affair with Dagny.
Ragnar the Pirate is the most interesting character a book has ever created that the author will never let the audience meet. He's in league with d'Anaconda and probably John Galt in their war against the Stupids, but unlike them who take the stance of simply hiding away, Ragnar the Pirate has conquered the high seas. He wanders around sinking shipments of emergency equipment and bombarding the Stupids from the sea. ARRR!! Of course, halfway through the book and we still haven't met Ragnar, which is really disappointing because he's the most insane creation yet. What the Hell is a Norwegian pirate doing in this book? Also, he brings up a very interesting question: why don't Dagny and her allies simply fight against the government run by the Stupids? If the Stupids are so incredibly awful at everything and the Supermen are so brilliant, it seems to me that armed resistance would win the war in a matter of days. Here in America, when a government has become unjust, we pride ourselves on our independence and willingness to fight back. The actual plan of the Supermen (whatever it is) doesn't make all that much sense yet.
And John Galt is John Galt. Big question mark. I'm glad I haven't met him yet because I know the moment he's revealed the most pressing mystery of the book will come crashing down, along with my willingness to continue. I hope whatever he's doing, it better be interesting and awesome. Maybe an underground army of giant robots to win back America.
So this is where Part 1 comes to a close. When I finish reading the book I'll jump into the last key points that I couldn't cover just now: the silliness of "Atlas Shrugged"'s premise, the nightmarish horror that is Ayn Rand's character dialog, the great mystery of when is this book is supposed to take place, and Who is John Galt. Until next time.
PART 2 HERE
* If you're having some trouble pronouncing that name, you are far and beyond not the only one. I thought "Ayn" might be a weird spelling of "Anne" for awhile, until Stephen Colbert said it as "EYEn". I'll take his word for it. Her real name "Alisa Rosenbaum" is a lot easier for an English speaker to pronounce.
** I utterly despise the architecture of the mid-20th century. When the main character is fighting for awful soulless rectangular structures like this, I will never support him. First of all, a building can be a work of art, but its also a building. People need to use it. It doesn't belong to the architect, it belongs to the people who hired that architect. Somewhere roughly in the 1950s we humans decided that tradition, aesthetics, and plain old good-looks didn't matter anymore. We stopped building glorious art deco structures like the Empire State Building and instead build black monoliths which I think were purposefully designed to kill all hope of free will in the general public. In my home county the difference between Modern architecture and the classical beauty it tried to kill is evident in our two courthouses. The old courthouse is a stately powerful temple representing thousands of years of rational justice and civilization. The new courthouse right next to the old one is just a fucking box with windows. And which one almost got torn down in the 1970s?
*** I happen to really like the name "Dagny" now. I dunno why, but its awesome. "Dagny Taggart" is the best name I've heard since "Guy Montag". I'd like to name my future daughter "Dagny" but now I can't because I know people will assume its some kind of salute to Ayn Rand. And I really do not want to salute Rand in any way. If she ends up similar to Miss Taggart, I hope she doesn't smoke as much.