Thursday, January 08, 2009

On Atlas Shrugged

I finished reading Atlas Shrugged a couple of weeks ago, and I've been sort of mulling it over since then, hoping my thoughts would coagulate into some sort of cohesive whole that I could present to the masses. That hasn't really happened, though, so I'll just share some thoughts.

First, someone should dig up Ayn Rand and teach her about section breaks. I hate to pause in my reading without some kind of break in the text, but in this book they're few and far between, especially toward the end.

In general, the whole novel is overlong. Way too much text is devoted to endless character conversations that serve no more purpose than hammering home the point that socialists are lazy, selfish (the bad kind), irresponsible, poor excuses for human beings, whereas selfish (the good kind) capitalists are the pinnacle of evolution and the only hope for civilization. We get it, Ayn, thanks. In terms of length, if nothing else, she would have been better served to simply publish the chapter "This Is John Galt Speaking" as a manifesto and been done with it (although I still would have argued for section breaks).

Beyond that, I'd say the book is a stylistic mess. It's preachy and pedantic, with large chunks of exposition shoved into the characters' mouths. None of the main characters are sympathetic, likable, or even particularly realistic. The plot itself was pretty ludicrous. I remember at one point thinking "Really? This is where we're going? Wow."

And seriously, what the hell happened to Eddie Willers? He was one of only two characters in the book I could relate to even a little bit, and he ends up getting screwed bigger than life. He may not have been exceptional, but he shared the same values as everyone who disappeared, and it seemed to me that there were "normal" people like him in the valley. All he did was bust his ass all his life for Dagny and her railroad, falling in love with her in the process, and he ends up having some kind of nervous breakdown trying to fix the last working train in the universe while Dagny flies off into utopia, sipping champagne and getting tag-teamed by the industrious saviors of the world who also happen to be he-man lovers.

(Okay, so that's not quite the way it went down, but close enough.)

Still, for all of its flaws, this was an interesting book, and I'm glad I read it. I have to say I liked Rand's The Fountainhead better, as it seemed to focus on an individual's passion for his craft, rather than the application of said craft to the accumulation of wealth, which I found slightly off-putting. I didn't agree with a lot of Rand's philosophy, mainly because I don't think real people are anywhere near as black and white as she makes them out to be in the novel. Sure, pure socialism may be a lousy system because unscrupulous lazy people exploit the system, but unfettered capitalism is just as bad because unscrupulous greedy people exploit the system. From a purely theoretical standpoint, I think both systems have their merits; in practice, however, neither is perfect because people aren't perfect. And really, that's all there is to it.

One thing I absolutely can't argue with Rand about, though, is that there is a staggering amount of incompetence out there in the world, seemingly sparse drive for individual (self) improvement, plenty of scorn and ridicule for those who are competent or even exceptional in some way, and far too much acceptance of the situation. Sometimes I look around and despair for the future of the human race. But I have no plans to withdraw from society, nor do I think it would much change matters if I did, even if I took a thousand of my closest friends with me.

Okay, so I guess that turned out to be a little more coherent than it seemed in my head. That's what the writing process is for, folks! I do have three random thoughts to share before I go, though:

  • It's difficult to take seriously any author that uses the words "loot" and "mooch" with such reckless abandon.

  • Dagny Taggart reminds me strongly of Mara Jade, the Imperial assassin turned Jedi from the Star Wars expanded universe.

  • Likewise, I can see the world of Atlas Shrugged being the world that moved on to become the apocalyptic fantasy world of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Consider - "regular" society collapses after the intellectual aristocracy withdraw, then, several generations on, their greed leads them to destroy themselves with the new advanced weaponry and environmental damage their unbridled capitalist innovation has wrought in the meantime.

    Oh, and if you can find another review out there somewhere that draws parallels between Atlas Shrugged, Star Wars, and The Dark Tower, I'll eat my copy of the book.
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