Sunday, June 15, 2008


Ayn, my dear, dear friend. If only I knew how to pronounce your first name. Anyway. I have read only one of Rand's books, Atlas Shrugged. Since this seems to be generally accepted as her opus magnum, there didn't seem much point to me reading her other books, especially as finding the literary relevance in them is sometimes a bit of a struggle. This is what I wrote in my diary the first time I read Atlas Shrugged:

"...I am also reading 'Atlas Shrugged' by Ayn Rand. I was somewhat doubtful as
to whether or not I should buy this book, but I had $5 left on a book voucher
and nothing else to spend it on, so I took the plunge. Let me tell you, that was
quite possibly the best spent $16 in my life. Whenever I stop reading it, I feel
as if have just surfaced from a whirlpool, gasping for breath and exhausted. I
feel like my emotions have been put through a wringer. I feel like everything I
have seen or heard in my life is worthless and I should simply commit suicide
because there is no point living anymore. I feel like I have suddenly succumed
to manic depression. So anyway, 'the Bronze Horseman' is getting deservedly
pushed to one side and 'Atlas Shrugged' will soon take pride of place on my
shelf of favourite books above my desk."
I've read that book once since, and these sentiments are still true, in a way. I know she's an unpopular old bitch, but she has her merits. Also her faults, but there is simply no doubt that she is far, far superior to Paullina Simons (author of the aforementioned The Bronze Horseman), or however the hell she spells her corrupted name. Here's the thing. Ayn Rand's prose is power. Pure, unadulterated power. It's brute force, but there's no subtlety, no beauty, nothing aesthetically pleasing. When you stop reading it, you do feel as if you're clawing your way out of a whirlpool. It's powerful all right, but somehow bruising.

She got me at an impressionable age - it was when I was just starting to read the odd bit of what I think of as 'proper literature'. I hadn't much experience with beautiful prose, and anything that moved me seemed good. Now, I like to think I'm older and wiser, and the second time I read it (which was about a month or so ago), I was less impressed. Even though I only vaguely remembered the plot, it was much less moving. This time I noticed the clunky prose, the one-dimensional characters and above all, the clichés. Her obsession with the naked shoulder, tension in the posture - after the first fifty or so times she uses those phrases, it starts to get a bit old. Actually, I've never seen anything so blatantly repetitive. It takes the cliché to a whole new level.

I must for a moment turn to her characters. Oh lordy! Cardboard cutouts have more personality and less predictability. THE GOOD PEOPLE HAVE NO FAULTS. THE BAD PEOPLE HAVE NO MERITS. I must say, though, I loved the names. Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden, Francisco D'Anconia. They have an element of onomatopoeia, yet they are totally believable (the names, not the characters). Then, I think it's probably much easier to name her characters, because they have no subtlety.

And the philosophy! Oh, the philosophy! It is a philosophy of extremes, which is not totally unsurprising given she grew up in communist Russia. The most fervent admirer of her that I have ever met also grew up in a communist country. In my experience, extremes breed extremes, and neither side is any good. Her far-right obsession with capitalism had me reeling a bit. I couldn't quite work out if she was actually serious. Trying to prove a political theory by basing a novel on it in a world so one-dimensional and lacking in shades of grey that it actually. could. not. exist? And yet she actually expects us to be convinced? How could any theory based on such fraudulent premises ever carry any weight whatsoever? I find it impossible to evaluate her ideas because what she's talking about can never exist. It's so ridiculous that I feel like I've missed something big and obvious.

ETA: actually, possibly part of the big and obvious thing I'm missing is that part of her philosophy is the concept of man as a hero. In my opinion, this doesn't change the fact that it's totally ludicrous.

If anyone asked me (they probably won't), I think I'd say, don't read this book. According to Wikipedia it comes in, at about 645 000 words and 1056 bible-thin pages of miniscule print, just above A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Set aside several months (assuming you want to continue your normal life at the same time) for A Suitable Boy instead, because it is far superior. Actually quite brilliant. Ayn Rand has written smaller books, such as The Fountainhead. I'd probably recommend reading one of them, because she's certainly memorable. Although I haven't read any of her other books, it's likely they'll be full of the same violent power, unrealistic characters and distinct lack of writing skill.

No comments: