Author: Ayn Rand
Full disclosure: I listened to the audio book of this. It was 63 hours long.
Late in this book, there’s a moment where one of the heroes takes over the radio waves to make a speech about why the great men in this society have all abandoned the masses. It’s an essay on the values of those men, versus the values of the rest of society. The men are tired of having their work, their ideas, and their money taken away from them by individuals who do not work, don’t have ideas, and don’t produce their own wages. It’s the central thesis of the book, and for the most part it is eloquently stated. After the speech, the government panics. More great men join the movement. The government decides that the man that made the speech must be made the dictator of the economy as only he can fix these issues. The man refuses to help, stating the reason why he refuses was laid out in his three hour speech. Sorry Ayn Rand. I just had the speech delivered to me, and it actually took SIX HOURS to listen to.
That’s how the whole book felt. Some very thought provoking arguments were delivered, every good guy was qualified to give a thirty minute statement on the value of the individual, and every conversation felt completely phony and at least twice as long as it should be. Every piece of dialogue in this book felt like that speech. It’s people droning on and on, uninterrupted, while they all fall on one of two sides with no gray area characters in between. All characters are on one of side of the moral absolute or the other. It’s an interesting idea for a book. In execution, I found this to be incredibly tedious.
The plot of Atlas Shrugged (great title) centers on Dagny Taggart, the Vice-President in Charge of Operations for Taggart Transcontinental railways, who is one of the most efficient individuals in the industry. The man in charge of the railroad is her brother James, a worthless inheritor of a company who actively does things that undermine the company. Why would he do that? James has fallen in with several other powerful lobbyist and legislators who actively seek to regulate the industry of the country to 1) preserve the current powerful corporations from their upstart competitors and 2) make sure that revenues also go to those in need and not just that that produce. The novel is also populated by remarkable men® who want to have sex with Dagny, including copper magnate Francisco d’Anconia, steel tycoon Hank Rearden, Dagny’s right hand man Eddie Willers, and the mysterious reputations of Ragnar Danneskjold and John Galt.
Each man (and Dagny) in the previous paragraph (except for her brother James) is the exact same man, with the exact same ideals, just at different points in the same chronological storyline. The prodigy becomes the millionaire becomes the rebel becomes the revolutionary. The antagonists in the book are all interchangeable as well. Each villain is a individual confident making laws that take things away from successful people, but who literally panic or freeze if somebody challenges their ideology. If I were reading a paper copy of this book, I would have started highlighting each time somebody said “Don’t say that! We shouldn’t even think that!” in response to somebody challenging the ‘take from the doers and give to the need’ers’ philosophy. If you’ve ever read through the comments section on a political article and seen somebody refer to another as a Libtard, you have a good idea of what Rand’s view of the opponents of her philosophy are portrayed as.
It’s a shame really, because provocative art is normally right up my alley. I’ll go to bat for just about anything Spike Lee or Larry Clark, and Steinbeck’s political writing is among my all time favorite. I agree with a lot of what Rand wrote, and I really loved The Fountainhead. But this entire book felt phonier than a Wes Anderson movie house with zero of the charm. There’s a scene where a young man never previously introduced in the book is shot during a labor dispute. As he lays there dying in Hank Rearden’s arms he give a 30 minute diatribe about what the meaning of ownership. At a cocktail party, Francisco d’Anconia gives a two hour speech on the same material every other good guy is espousing and everybody present sits silently listening with no rebuke afterward. The America of Atlas Shrugged is populated by business men who all give lengthy speeches and sniveling hangers-on who can not form a cogent argument against them or perform any job of productive value. The ratio of civilians seems to be about 100 of the sniveling whiners to one remarkable man. Throughout all 1100+ pages, there are numerous sections on people losing the will to work, or businesses going under because no quality men are available to hire.
The plot has some fun elements to it but they get buried in the lengthy discussions, a dull protagonist, and a really stupid ending. How stupid is the ending? **Spoilers follow** Imagine the government has the number one enemy of the state in custody. They take him to a remote military installation under lockdown with 14 personally chosen soldiers to watch him. Now imagine that group of soldiers getting the crap kicked out of them by 3 business men and a business lady. When one soldier gets shot, he asks “who shot me?” and the man in the suit responds, “Ragnar Danneskjold.” It only makes sense in this world the business men with strong values and self worth would also be better at soldierly work than the weak men with no individuality who would rather be shot than make decisions (but it doesn’t make it read any less ridiculous).
Equally problematic is the entire character arc of protagonist Dagny Taggart. Hank Rearden gets a lot of crap from Francisco for being the biggest culprit at enabling the corrupt system to thrive, however Dagny is basically allowed to just be reactive throughout the entire book and not be held accountable by the rest of her peers. Her biggest character arc is that she trades up her dream man whenever she meets a better version of him. Luckily for her all of the men don’t seem to mind, as they all love each other (platonically) and in the entire book there is only one other woman who meets the standard to be welcome into the men’s world, and she’s a retired actress and current cafeteria worker. The love scenes between Dagny and Hank are as creepy as you would expect, with Hank being a very demanding lover who insists on replacing foreplay with monologues on his values.
Go read The Fountainhead for a much more entertaining book that gets into the same ideas but doesn’t feel like getting a hole drilled into your head.