Ayn Rand was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, playwright, and screenwriter. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and for developing a philosophical system she called Objectivism.
''Countless individuals working to secure liberty have found inspiration in the works of Ayn Rand. With her unique ability to depict heroism, idealism, and romance behind the creativity of the individual, Rand inspires readers to come to the defense of free minds and free markets.''
''[A] vibrant and powerful novel of ideas.''
''Ayn Rand is destined to rank in history as the outstanding novelist and most profound philosopher of the twentieth century.''
''Atlas Shrugged is not merely a novel. It is also -- or may I say -- first of all -- a cogent analysis of the evils that plague our society.''
Years ago, I sat in Day One of my first fiction workshop, a newbie writer worried about appearing too newbie. The workshop leader wanted to know about us. What writers we liked. Some of our favorite books. My workshop mates tossed out the expected names like Garcia Marquez, Borges, Saunders, Bender, Barthelme and Bukowski and Carver, Hemingway and Nabokov and Kafka. My underarms ran with sweat. When my turn came, I wanted to express my individuality, and maybe my mental stamina too, so I said that I liked Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Cue the crickets and the blank stares. The workshop leader said “Okay” in a way that sounded disappointed. Like: Okaaaaaaaaay, thanks. Next person please. Since then, I’ve continued to get the same reaction when I mention it. So what is with all the literary hating on this novel? Some writers are quite forceful in their dislike. Others will temper their negative reaction by admitting that they liked Rand’s The Fountainhead, however, and liked it even better in its movie form (the 1949 classic starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal).
After all, who doesn’t inwardly cheer when Howard Roark blows up the building he designed rather than see it bastardized by feeble minds?
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the two obvious turn-offs with Atlas Shrugged, starting with its size. Sure, it’s bloated. Wikipedia has it as number eight on their longest-novel list, punching in at about 565,000 words, topping both David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (#11, at 484,000) and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, but edged out by Leo Tolstoy at #7 with his poster-child of heft, War and Peace (587,000). Novels this big simply don’t play well these days. We’re an attention-deficit, multi-tasking society of over-caffeinated busybodies. Give us the Cliff’s Notes, please, downloadable to Kindle, teen vampires and boy wizards helpful but not required. I’ll agree that a good editor could have trimmed this beast down without harming its essence, but that didn’t happen, and so a few more trees were sacrificed to Rand’s verbose tendencies. New ones have grown up in their places; time to move on. To me, the size of this novel is much more a function of a vast plot scale than verbosity. Who would dare tackle a colossal topic like the disintegration of society, across industries, from coast to coast?
While there is no shortage of apocalyptic novels, most narrow their scope to a story that can be comfortably told in 60,000 words or so. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, for example, we never find out what destroyed society -- we just follow a man and his son on a bleak, frightening journey of survival. Rand, on the other hand, chronicles how something too big to fail can indeed fail. That’s going to take more than a few chapters, people. Talk about a big canvas to paint!
And second: what about the pages and pages of Rand’s individual-centric philosophical diatribes sprinkled throughout the novel? For example, mystery man John Galt’s big radio-broadcast soliloquy near the end of the book covers fifty-six pages of small typeface in the 1999 edition. While admittedly being too swollen (see above), I’d argue that it’s necessary to the story. The entrepreneurial characters that go AWOL in the book were successful enough that they could have survived, in some lesser way, the grievous actions of bumbling government bureaucrats, if all they were interested in were survival. But they were idealists, damn it, and mustn’t all idealists spout their ideals? Aren't revolutions built upon manifestos?
In my opinion, it aids the credibility of the story to understand the deep-rooted motivations and passions of Henry Reardon, Dagny Taggart and the rest of the shruggers. It helps make their outrage palpable and their extreme actions believable. Does it come in chunks too big to swallow? Yes. I believe it unnecessarily taxes the reader when the top story disappears for dozens of pages, so maybe Rand loses a few craft points here, but for God’s sake, let her keep her ideals. They’re the nuclear fuel of this whole sloppy brilliant mess of a novel.
I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m one of the few that will ever read and enjoy this book, as a fan of her literary accomplishment, not of her philosophy (the other supporters of Atlas Shrugged seem to be the right-wing followers of her Objectivist beliefs). I’m still satisfied with my response given back in that workshop years ago, defending this unruly novel, and equally dissatisfied with my recent non-response to a friend who asked me why I hadn’t read Infinite Jest yet. Within a span of milliseconds, I considered answering “too long.” I thought of saying “too many big lumps of momentum-killing thoughtwandering,” but I was not about to become a hypocrite. Instead, I just shrugged.