Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Ayn Rand Problem

The complete dismissal of Ayn Rand’s novels by contemporary literary critics like Thomas Mallon says more about the narrow intellectual world in which these critics live, than it does about Rand’s work.

Thomas Mallon, in a 11/9/09 essay in The New Yorker, called Rand a “crackpot,” and assured his readers that Atlas Shrugged is “badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization.”

Really, Mr. Mallon? Every level? Yet that same novel has connected with, stirred, and shaped the minds of huge numbers of readers since the novel was first introduced. An impartial observer would suspect the book, as literature, must be doing something right.

Part of what the critics react to is Rand’s take-no-prisoners politics, her in-your-face defense of Capitalism. But they also react to the way she presents her ideas, which is with boldness, outlining her thesis on a very large scale. These critics are trained by the academy to be genteel and cautious—Mallon is a product of Harvard, Brown, and Radcliffe—and are made uncomfortable by those who break their stiff codes of behavior and style.

In other words, it’s about more than politics. Ayn Rand after all wrote in the 19th century tradition of popular novelists like Dickens, Hugo, and Dumas. These novelists painted with bold colors, embraced large themes, sought to encompass entire societies in their view, and didn’t flinch from melodrama. The American novelist who best carried on this tradition was Frank Norris— anything but an apologist for Big Business.


Ayn Rand’s novels are filled with giant failings. They contain swaths of bad writing. Her characters aren’t realistic. The speeches her heroes engage in go on very long. Rand breaks tons of writing rules. Yet she gets away with it through the power of her voice, and the momentum of the narratives which carry readers along with her, crackpot or not. It’s the essence of literature.

Rand knows how to construct a narrative. Plot threads? There have been few plot threads more effective than “Who is John Galt?”

Ayn Rand had a giant ego but she also had a giant imagination: Galt’s Gulch; the mysteriously efficient motor found in an abandoned factory; the rail line—Rand creates enough myth and mystery to ensure the reader is captured by the book. Throughout is the story—the driving onward movement of plot, best expressed by the thrilling train ride that dominates a large part of the book. But, always, there’s the plot hook: “Who is John Galt?” What’s going on? Rand hangs her wealth of ideas upon this simple plot hook.

Rand isn’t writing anything which looks like an acceptable novel, but she does create an entire aesthetic, an expression of a unique viewpoint. We visualize the happenings of the story. She’s painting as much as writing. Atlas Shrugged evokes post-World War II American modernism, capturing the feeling of hyper-power, hyper-success-- monumental buildings, machines, and ideas representative of the most powerful and successful civilization that ever was. Most writers flinch from the very notion. Yet we live in that civilization. Maybe Ayn Rand is a more realistic writer than we thought.

Her characters, in their way, are equally as monumental. They’re stylized drawings. They’re meant to be ideals. Rand scorned religion but created her own, with its own gods—and asked the readers to be gods. Galt’s Gulch has echoes to H.G. Wells’ giant new humans in “Food of the Gods” escaping to a valley to create their own world. The novel is an obvious metaphor for technological progress.

Beyond this, Ayn Rand celebrates the artist. Curious that she didn’t believe in God. No author more celebrated creation. One of her heroes is a symphonic composer. One can almost hear the notes of his work. The book is filled with such evocative suggestions. The world Rand creates is created inside our heads.
Atlas Shrugged is a monumental, social realism-style painting, but it’s also theater, which is what the long speeches are about. Rand didn’t flinch from using every possible tool in the writer’s toolbox. Yes, she hit you over the head with them—but you stay to the end regardless.

By the end the plot gets a little ridiculous. The representation of ideas is taken too far. But while it lasts, the story is an exciting ride. The philosophy is part of the presentation: the all-encompassing aesthetic contained within the book. It’s all painting. It’s all theater. The book is gestures and clothes and looks and postures. It’s all style—which means nothing more than that Ayn Rand was an artist. 

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