Thursday, March 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

Target demographic:
My antithetical demographic:

I don’t know when my morbid curiosity of Atlas Shrugged developed, but it’s been lurking with me for quite some time. Like The DaVinci Code, it seemed to be mostly of interest to people who did not engender much trust in their tastes. If I ever asked for the opinion of anyone I trusted it was usually unreservedly negative. “Don’t bother,” they would say, quickly followed by, “it’s got, like, a 100 page speech in it.” Now, I don’t usually mind long monologues, after all Conrad’s Marlow can sure rattle off a ridiculous amount of words in one sitting. But, I got the impression that this infamous speech was not designed explore the nature of memory, storytelling and communication. Rather it was didactic, long, and obnoxious. Plus there were inevitable warning about Rand’s harsh philosophy and how it’s a bunch of bullshit. For a long time, I would satisfy my curiosity by reading the exhaustive Wikipedia pages on Atlas Shrugged and Objectivism. I would skim them, come away with a basic understanding of Rand’s philosophy (idealism, free market, whatever) and then promptly forget about it.

But recently, a movie based on the book (well, the first part of it anyhow) was announced complete with a  mindnumbingly unexciting trailer.

Railroads! Rich people! People smoking cigars! Government imposed economic control! And probing questions, such as: Why don’t you let me finish?! and, Who is John Galt? Wait, Who is John Galt? What? Why would I care who John Galt is? That’s such a bizarre question to get me excited, but it’s presented with such thundering percussion that I feel like I’m missing something. Who is John Galt? Oh God, I don’t know! I better go to this movie to figure it out! But first I’m going to read the book to figure out why I should care.

Well, after over a thousand pages (in a mass market paperback no less), I’m still not entirely sure why I should care. Actually, the question, from the beginning, is an opaque idiom in the novel, meaning, essentially “who knows?” It’s the first sentence in the novel, and so from the beginning I was still wondering why I should give a shit. After it was explained (pretty explicitly), what it meant, I had other questions: What is the origin of this phrase? and more importantly, Why would the population need another idiom when “Who knows,” or “God knows,” work perfectly fine? The first question is answered about 800 pages into the book; the second question is never really addressed. Also, about a third of the way through the book we actually find out exactly who John Galt is (though you can easily figure it out well before that point). But like I said, I never really cared about that answer in the first place.

That was kind of my reading experience in a nutshell. The questions I cared about either took about a million pages to answer (usually in incredibly long drawn out passages) or were never addressed. But the main focus of the book was on questions I never cared about in the first place… answered in painfully didactic prose.
I’m going to talk about the subject of the prose a little later, but first I’d like to address the prose itself, because it’s really the books biggest problem, specifically the amount of prose. The amount of prose is a lot. It’s specific volume is way, way too fucking much. I should mention that, generally, I like long novels; one of my favorite books is William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, which is a little over 900 pages long. I enjoyed Infinite Jest. I’ve read Ulysses several times. It’s not the length that I have problem with per se, it’s the fact that it doesn’t need to be as long as it is. This book needs an editor. I’ve heard people that enjoy the book say that it could probably be cut down to about 700 pages. I personally think it could probably be cut down to about 200 pages. Seriously, it’s almost like a short story. The structure of the book doesn’t befit such epic length. This book made me realize that it’s not that I necessarily enjoy long novels, it’s that I enjoy polyphony, the concept of many voices making up the narrative. Shifts in perspective, flights of fancy, diversions: these are the things that define the long novels that I listed above, and I really believe that if you’re going to write a long novel, it better contain a whole mess of polyphony. Otherwise you get something like Atlas Shrugged; one monolithic block of A POINT endlessly and endlessly explained until it become unbearable.

And I’m not just talking about that infamous speech, I’m talking about EVERYTHING. Characters come to epiphanies… but… no, hold on… and then regress all the way back to the beginning of the novel. Things are explained to them over and over again. Then eventually they explain it to other people. Alternately the bad guys explain how stupid they are, and then the good guys sit there stoically and let them go on so that we the readers really get an idea of how completely idiotic the bad guys are.

Speaking of bad guys and good guys, I’m just going to say a little bit about the philosophical underpinnings of this novel. Much wiser people than me have written in favor and against it, and I honestly don’t care enough to think too much about it. I will say, however, that this book causing some sort of epiphany in people’s economic understanding is totally baffling to me. This is a novel of extremes: the situation of the America described in the novel is so desperately blockheaded that I can’t imagine how it could ever get to that point. The policies devised by the bad bad naughty politicians and disingenuous businessmen are clearly stupid, but even when they inevitably fail, and continue to fail, instead of stepping back and saying… hmm… maybe we should reconsider this, they just push on through until, quite literally, the entire country collapses. So the great application of objectivism that this book purports to put forth is developed in a fantasy environment. Perhaps, you say, this could be seen as a strength: since the two perspectives put forth are at such extreme ends of the spectrum, perhaps the book could be read as a call for open dialogue and cooperation. No. No. You’re wrong. The good guys in this are so fucking good, they don’t even have time for that shit. No, there will be no compromise. No, there will be no dialogue. Look assholes, you know that 100 page speech I made? That’s my fucking compromise. Read it. Conform to it. End of discussion.

But I knew all that. What was really surprising to me while reading the book was how astonishingly opposed to what could probably anachronistically be described as postmodernism it was. The reason that there is such economic problems in the novel, the reason why the great minds are constantly being hassled, is because there’s this fundamental philosophy of sophism that keeps cropping up. There is no truth, the bad guys proclaim in the most inappropriate circumstances. There are no absolutes, they say. There are no ideals. And that’s what leads to socialism, depravity, and, ultimately, half of the United States being destroyed.

The fact that the last part actually does happen in the novel (oh, I’m sorry, did I spoil it for you?), is its only saving grace. I don’t say that because I like reading about the Mid-West being destroyed by a sonic weapon, I say that because this books gets crazy. I mean it starts out a little nutty, but about half-way through, when the bad guys are enacting the most ridiculous policies, things start to get unhinged. By the third part everything’s collapsing: roving gangs, weapons of mass destruction, torture. And then, right near the end Dagny Taggert, the main protagonist, a railroad executive, shoots some poor anonymous dude at point blank range right in the chest just because he can’t make up his mind. It’s pretty brutal.

Unfortunately, as I said, only the first, most boring part has currently been made into a movie. As much as I hated this book, I still feel obligated to see the first part in theaters just so they can move on to the much more ridiculous parts of the book. ‘Cause seriously, if the second and third part follow the book, that shit is going to be B, A, N, A, N, A, S.

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