Okay, so I’m a little daunted by doing this review for a couple of reasons. One, it’s one of those uber-classical books that’s widely read. Two, it’s one of those uber-philosophical books that’s chock full of theory and logic. And three, I finished it last week and my uber-forgetfulness will probably lead me astray, particularly as I’m been spending the intervening time reading the Aubrey/Marturin series, which is a whole another animal altogether.
BUT. I did read it, and it does deserve a review, so I’ll do my best and hopefully I won’t commit any gross injustices.
Atlas Shrugged is in many ways a radical capitalist’s love story. It’s main characters are incredibly smart and powerful industrialists striving to succeed among the countless parasites surrounding them, including the government, the poor, and often their own family members. The story revolves around the determined and efficient railroad executive Dagny Taggert, and also the ingenious and energetic ore refining CEO, Hank Rearden. Both are cold, heartless materialists (avowedly so) who bribe, cheat, and deal on the black market. But Ayn Rand paints a wonderfully sympathetic portrait of these powerful people, and characters who would be villains in anyone else’s hands become stalwart, beleagured heroes. They’re the efficient, hardworking, producing class of people that bring society and humanity to new heights.
Unfortunately, society does not WANT to reach new heights. If anything, they want to stay where they are. Rearden and Dagny are constantly beset by governmental laws and restrictions that try to prevent them from building new railroads or producing new kinds of metal. In fact, about half-way through the story, the government makes a law against producing, buying, or selling any more than the set amount of this year. Even inventions and new ideas are forbidden, because they ‘upset the market balance.’ Companies are forbidden to hire or fire any more employees. This is why Dagny and Rearden are so often compelled to deal on the black market or bribe officials–there is simply no way to do business legally. The world constantly is reviling them, often for nothing worse than for being rich and successful. Yet ironically, the world is also depending on them, as the ONLY successful people, to give them the jobs and products they desire. They cry that the rich and successful should support the poor and weak.
Rand, interestingly, scoffs at the idea not only of social programs (she grew up in Russia), but of charity in general. One of the side heroes actually spends his time robbing relief boats bound for starving countries, dumping the contents into the water. She has no fondness for Christianity or of any religion (though she spends more time on the evil government bureaucrats), and especially hates the idea of sacrifice, comparing it to cannibalism. The central hero’s mantra is: “I swear–by my life and love of it–that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Yet at times Rand’s heroes seem to fall short of this ideal. Rearden makes several costly decisions for Dagny’s sake. Dagny, in one scene, offers a beggar to eat a meal with her. Another character says that Rearden is one of two men he would give his life for. The central hero tells Dagny that if the enemy threatens to torture her, he will kill himself.
Rand offers explanations for all these acts, and the explanations give a bit more nuance to her harsh views. Rearden makes his decisions either for business reasons, or because he couldn’t live with himself otherwise. Dagny offers the beggar a meal because she sees he is a hardworking man. The man would die for Rearden because Rearden is a greater man than he. The central hero would kill himself because he couldn’t stand to see Dagny tortured and he couldn’t stand to work with the enemy. Thus it can be seen that Rand actually has no problem with sacrifices born of love, or gifts of charity given to worthy men. It is only involuntary, forced charity and sacrifice that she cannot stand. Several characters in the story rant against Dagny and Rearden, telling them that TRUE sacrifice and TRUE charity are to those you hate and those who do not deserve it. Rand has no truck with this idea. She hates the government that forces men to give to their fellow man, and she hates the church that commands it, but if a person FREELY wants to do it, that’s their decision.
Rand might be called a right-wing nut by some, if she didn’t have such a comprehensive and logical theory so completely expressed. (Almost too completely expressed, actually, the central hero gives a nearly 60-page speech that essentially re-iterates themes that have already been covered elsewhere in the 1200-page book.) And while very few might actually adopt ALL of her worldview, certain elements of it are appealing. The portrayal of government relief programs, for instance, with their endless corruption and inefficiency, is a heartwarming experience for any conservative. And certainly many Christians will agree with Rand’s scornful view of subjectivism, and her high opinion of objective truth and thought. And even the undigestible portions give you something to chew on. At the very least, Atlas Shrugged is a thought-provoking read.
However, some critique should be offered. Rand, as I have already pointed out, is not a Christian author, and Dagny Taggert has relationships with three different men, one of whom is married (but his wife is a nasty leech, so it’s okay). From a more objective standpoint, Rand’s handling of these relationships is not entirely realistic, as all three are madly in love with her, but all three are perfectly cool with the idea of her leaving them for the next guy in line. To be honest, I was almost expecting Rand to come up with a rational reason for polygamy, but apparently there are limits even she won’t cross. In addition to her aforementioned views on sacrifice, Rand also thinks ‘guilt’ is simply a tool used to compel good men to serve bad men, and a great deal of the sixty-page manifesto is spent raging against ‘the mystics’ of religion.
Technical issues exist also. As evidenced by the speech, Rand likes to stop the action occasionally and write a long essay about her views on the world. It comes off as highly didactic and somewhat boring. She’s repetitive also: she repeats the same themes many times, and often her speeches give example after example long after the reader has gotten the point. Even the book itself is somewhat redundant; a friend commented to me that she’d started Atlas Shrugged but stopped halfway through because she’d already read Fountainhead and The Anthem and felt pretty sure she knew where the themes were going. Often, too, the main character’s emotions can be difficult to understand, as they act on Rand’s wavelength and not necessarily on the reader’s.
But as I said, the work is thought-provoking and refreshingly original. It is wonderfully liberating to read a work where businessmen and over-achievers are actually presented as GOOD people, and the underdogs are, well, dogs. And perhaps everyone can empathize with the frustration Rearden and Dagny feel at the incompetence of those around them (though that never prevents them from doing their job). For such a unique book, it resonates surprisingly well with many people, and it is definitely an engaging read. If you like deep, thoughtful books, have enough time to wade through 1200 pages, and don’t mind disagreeing with a great deal of what you read, I’d recommend it. Or failing that, you could always watch the movie.
It’s only the first part of three, and it bombed in the theaters so it’s not likely to get any farther, but if you’re too lazy to read, be my guest. Video game enthusiasists may also be interested to know that the game Bioshock takes a great deal of inspiration from Atlas Shrugged, and the city Rapture is built very much along the lines of her philosophy. (Hint:Ayn Rand==Andrew Ryan.) But that’s not remotely like the book, so don’t try to get out of it that way.
Speaking of video games, I should probably be reviewing Half Life 2 by this time next week.