Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)
Review by Adam Roberts

I decided, on the principle that one should not condemn an enemy from a position of ignorance of their work, actually to read Ayn Rand’s sumo-size Objectivist novel Atlas Shrugged (1957). This I did, over the Easter break. And what an interesting experience it turned out to be.

I was surprised, for one thing, how readable the book was. I’ll confess that somewhere around page 300 the relentlessness of the novel’s combination of gnashing, effortful intensity of outrage and the sheer pressure of industrial-economic pseudo-detail was starting to wear me out. But I pushed through, and the last eight hundred pages just slid by. Which is to say, eventually they slid by. Which is to say, what with the fact that there was nothing on the telly, and nothing much else to do, eventually I read it. Actually the novel elaborates a narrative version of society rather like Dynasty: a few brilliant, beautiful members of the super-rich, a few powerful villains, and lots of spear-carriers. Dynasty was always crap but watchable, not unlike this book. Indeed, had Dynasty had the courage of its convictions and spent a series tracing the decline of its America into a dystopian economic collapse, brought about by the ressentiment and incompetence of the masses manipulated by evil politicians via spurious slogans of ‘social equality’, and thereafter the resurrection of a cleaner, better, grander enterprise society, then it might have very much resembled Atlas Shrugged.

One of the things that surprised me was how very redolent of a particular era of American science fiction the novel is: in tone it reminded me of Robert Heinlein – the long declarative sections in which characters debate the best way to get a misfiring country working again, the stress on engineering competence as the touchstone of human value, the vigorous simplification. There’s also something of Philip K Dick, in the first half at least, in the sense of a flattened, rather greying representation of social disintegration; although Dick was too canny to invest his hopes in the Wellsian utopian idealism of a society planned and run by geniuses in the way Rand does.

In obvious ways, of course, the book is science fiction. For instance it posits the creation of certain technological nova for instance: a superstrong variety of steel, a motor engine that draws its power from ‘static electricity in the air’ as it drives along; a weapon that destroys using only sound waves. More to the point, its worldbuilding is of the sub-Orwellian, or sub-sub-Orwellian, variety, where everywhere in the world has been swallowed by malign ‘people’s republics’ (the whole of Europe, for instance, is a place of mass slavery, death camps and wicked pseudo-Communist tyranny). America seems to be the last place in which Capitalism still operates, but it’s under threat at the beginning and succumbs about halfway through. Our main characters are: brilliant and beautiful Dagny Taggart, of the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad (keeping the entire company operating through sheer force of her will and genius, and in the teeth of the company’s nominal director, her venal brother James); brilliant and handsome Hank Rearden, owner of Rearden Metal and inventor of the new sort of steel, trapped in a loveless marriage; and the handsome and brilliant Francisco D’Anconia. These three have a few loyal and worthwhile friends and deputies, but otherwise all the other characters manifest the physical ugliness of the self-evidently corrupt (“the pendulous face of Orren Boyle with the small slits of pig’s eyes. The doughy face of Mr Mowen with the eyes that scurried away from any speaker and any fact”, [p560]).

For about two thirds of this 1100-page novel Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden undertake heroic struggles to keep their respective companies afloat in the face of the tide of public hostility, governmental tyranny and greed. D’Anconia on the other hand, though posing as a skittish international playboy, is actually working for a hidden cabal of geniuses, organised by one John Galt. In the world at large the question with which the novel opens (“Who is John Galt?”) has become a meaningless slogan, uttered by people when they mean to say “who knows?” But John Galt is real. He has a plan to save the world.

The world he is trying to save is sketched by Rand via emblematic figures. For example, the Arts are represented by a wholly meretricious novelist called Balph Eubank who writes novels with titles like The Heart is a Milkman and The Vulture is Moulting. It might be considered, shall we say, brave of a writer who called her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged to crack wise at the expense of pretentious novel titles. But never mind that for the time being. There’s also an evil Relativist philosopher called Pritchett who preaches the fluidity of all meaning and the absence of absolute values, and who, in the rigorously pared down logic of the novel, has replaced the only other philosopher in the world – a virtuous quasi-Objectivist called Hugh Akston – in public affection and influence. Akston is working as a fry-chef in a café in the middle of nowhere, but he’s perfectly happy. Indeed, as the “looters and moochers” grasp more and more power into their greedy, incompetent hands, the people of real talent (almost all such people, according to Rand, are businessmen and factory owners) are silently vanishing, whither none know. Corrupt Washington politicians enact more and more oppressive legislation, until the country grinds to an absolute standstill. Then, when Rand has squeezed every last dribble of outrage from her polemical spleen, she reverses the movement; the novel ends as the disappeared geniuses and great wo/men return, poised to set the world to rights, and get their proper reward: healthy profits, lots of money, and a world fit for rugged individualists to build railways across.

Most of the novel is written in a declarative, rather grey prose, in which characters discuss various practical matters at length.

“All right Hank,” she said, “we’re going ahead with the new Rearden Metal bridge. This is the official order of the official owner of the John Galt line.”

He smiled, looking down at the drawings of the bridge spread in the light on his desk. “Have you had a chance to examine the scheme we submitted?”

“Yes. You don’t need my comments or compliments. The order says it.”

“Very well. Thank you. I’ll start rolling the metal.”

“Don’t you want to ask whether the John Galt Line is in a position to place orders or to function?”

“I don’t need to. Your coming here says it.”

She smiled. “True. It’s all set, Hank. I came to tell you that and to discuss the details of the bridge in person.”

He was not looking at her; he was looking at a sheet of figures on his desk. “I’ve had my engineers prepare a breakdown of the cost of the bridge,” he said, “and an approximate schedule of the construction time required. That is what I wanted to discuss with you.” He extended the papers. She settled back to read them. [p204]

There’s an awful lot like this. From time to time Rand puts the declarative mode on one side in order to purple-up her style. The result is not what literary critics call “good”. Here is Dagny riding a train:

The green-blue rails ran to meet them, like two jets shot out of a single point beyond the curve of the earth. The crossties melted, as they approached, into a smooth stream running down underneath the wheels … Trees and telegraph poles sprang into sight abruptly, and went by as if jerked back. … The glass sheets of the cab’s windows made the spread of the fields seem vaster: the earth looked as open to movement as it was to sight. Yet nothing was distant and nothing was out of reach. She had barely grasped the sparkle of a lake ahead, and in the next instant she was beside it, and past.

Rand is fatally drawn to over-emphatic expression. At moments of intensity (and this novel is prodigiously over-supplied with such moments) she turns the prose-style dial all the way up to 11, and, in some cases, to 12. This is how something occurs to one character: “it was not a thought, it was like the punch of a fist inside his skull” [p224]. Nothing moves; everything whirls, or thunders, or convulses. Characters are not afraid, the fear “goes through them in spasms”. Instead of “speaking” people cry and scream. Here, from a few pages in the middle of the novel:

“Dagny,” he screamed. “Don’t go …!”

The screaming of the telephones went on through the silence.

He flung the glass door open and from the threshold, in the sight and hearing of the room, he screamed: “where is she!”

“I won’t tell you.”

Taggart’s scream rose to the shrill impotent sound that confesses a miscalculation. [p624-5]

You’ve probably had that experience yourself, of hearing somebody screaming at the top of their lungs in a way that betrays miscalculation. The point is that when intensity has no other mode, it palls. There are times – and actually, the times are all the time without exception – when it is simply more effective to write “he got to his feet and spoke” than it is to write “he shot to his feet with the stored abruptness of a spring uncoiling, his voice driving on in merciless triumph” [p620]. But the idea that less could ever be more was clearly one alien to Rand’s aesthetic. The back of my Penguin edition of the novel carries this endorsement, presumably from a 1957 review: “she writes brilliantly, beautifully, bitterly. The New York Times”. The bitterness comes through on every page that isn’t given over to improbable ecstasy, but the brilliance and beauty … not so much. Often the writing is really heroically bad, impossible simile following impossible simile. Here we read of “an announcer, with a voice like a machine-gun spitting smiles …” [p826]. There we read:

A gray cotton, which was neither quite fog nor clouds, hung in sloppy wads between sky and mountains, making the sky look an old mattress spilling its stuffing down the sides of the peaks. [p518]

If Objectivist philosophy called for people to sleep on mattresses stuffed with sloppy wads then no wonder it didn’t catch on.

But, wait, what am I saying? Objectivism not catching on? Objectivism has become, via indirect routes, the dominant ethos of the world today. Alan Greenspan may not individually have been the world’s most powerful figure, but his long period of prominence and influence reflected a half century in which the principles of profit, individualism, greed and selfishness achieved unchallenged dominance across most of the Western world. It has conquered even China and Russia now. The paradise-on-earth Rand prophesied: we’re pretty much living in it. Atlas Shrugged is about as timely a book as is imaginable.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, there’s an obvious answer and a less obvious one. The obvious one is that Atlas Shrugged is a polemical Objectivist novel, designed on every page to advance Ayn Rand’s philosophical world-view. It’s not that her authorial thumb is in the balance; it’s that she has jammed her whole arm in there – that she’s clambered her entire body into the balance and is jumping up and down to get it to register the quantity she wants. It seems to me that the flaws in Objectivist thinking are such as to render the novel inert as polemic, and without that there is only the rather empty Soapy pleasures of the narrative. But a Randian would complain, with some justice, that I’m only voicing my own ideological preconceptions.

But there is another problem here, and it has to do with dramatic conception. Atlas Shrugged is a one-dimensional novel, despite Rand’s very strenuous efforts to breathe life and depth into it. It is one dimensional because Objectivist philosophy holds to a strictly non-dialectical, one-dimensional metaphysic. Whether this is a valuable philosophical position or not is a matter about which interesting discussions, perhaps, can be had; but in a purely dramatic sense it is a fatal limitation.

Characters in the novel repeat, not once but many times, that there is no such thing as contradiction. “If you find a contradiction,” says D’Anconia, time and again, “then examine your premises. You’ll find one or other of them to be mistaken.” This is the caricature image of Objectivism as a whole: a hectoring insistence that one “examine one’s premises!” But, to put the matter in artistic terms, it robs narrative of dramatic tension. For Rand there is nothing tragic in Antigone; there cannot be a clash between Creon and Antigone. All there can be is one party (I’m guessing she’d side with the latter) in the right and one in the wrong.

But this would be to misread Antigone; or to put it another way, the reason why aesthetic theoreticians have over many generations kept banging on about the play, is that it embodies with attractive clarity precisely the motor of the greatest art: not only tragedy, but all properly engaging or moving dramatic representation. Conflict. Without conflict there isn’t drama. And for all the pop-eyed cod-intensities and enormity of scale of Rand’s novel, there isn’t really conflict, or drama, to be found anywhere in the text. Her politicians don’t really believe in social equality and justice; they’re all venal self-serving villains. It would have made a more interesting novel if they did really believe in social equality and justice, or if Rand had been able to think herself convincingly into the mindset that did. Her heroes are in the right on page 1, and in the right on 1168, and the reader is never allowed on any page to doubt that they are right.

This review originally appeared on The Valve.