Atlas Shrugged (and I went and looked in a mirror)

If there is one thing that is easy to spot in Rand’s writing, it‘s the bad guys. In westerns they wear black clothes, in spy thrillers they have outlandish accents and in fantasy novels they’re often ninjas. In Randian novels they’re ‘visually compromised’. For example:

“His mouth was the part of him which he could not pull tight at any time; it was uncomfortably prominent in his lean face, attracting the eyes of any listener: when he spoke, the movement ran through his lower lip, twisting its moist flesh into extraneous contortions of its own.”

Or:

“…had vague features and a manner devoid of all emphasis… his only distinction seemed to be a bulbous nose, a bit to large for the rest of him.”

Sometimes she even fakes you out with a little misdirection:

“He was a large man with big, virile gestures; everything about his person was loudly full of life, except the small black slits of his eyes.”

Of course all her heroes are perfection itself, strong lines and chiseled features that reflect the majesty of their souls and philosophies. I’d throw some examples your way but they tend to drag on a bit. Suffice it to say that she kinda hammers the point home.

But it doesn’t end there, no sir. Even if you were blind to the descriptions you could hardly miss the names – her heroes, by and large, are deigned with strong, punchy, almost onomatopoeic names: Hank Reardon, Dagny Taggart, John Galt, Ragnar Danneskjold, Ken Danagger, and Ellis Wyat. While her bad guys, or anti-characters as I came to think of them, get the revealing likes of Wesley Mouch, Bertrum Scudder, Cuffy Meigs and Orren Boyle.

There are compromise names and names that could go either way, but those fall into a development process – like James Taggart, the douche brother of the heroine Dagny, whose name transforms depending on who he’s talking to or who is talking about him, Jim, Jimmy, James, as if he’s a Nothing Man whose meaning is defined by the regard of the characters surrounding him. Or Robert Stadler, the world bestriding scientist (apparently based on Oppenheimer), who was something of a ‘could have been’ that turned into the worst kind of sell-out. I think Stadler is her only attempt at some sort of middle ground – though it is a weak middle ground as his initial status comes purely from what he was, a great mind, rather than what he becomes, a total betrayer and apologist. Stadler never presents an argument of any substance, always becoming ‘furtive’ and evasive when confronted with Rand’s vision of Truth.

The names and physicality of her characters and anti-characters really emphasize an ever present devise of Rand’s, an intentional one I can only presume: the refusal to invest any argument, or representative of that argument, with any substance whatsoever. They are designed to fail. Something that grates the more it happens. It became harder and harder for me to take her arguments seriously due to her refusal to challenge them through the narrative with anything other than glass-jawed falsosophies. Rand’s refusal to trust the minds of her readers struck me as ironic in the worst way.

All of that said; the effects were impressive in many ways. I came to really admire her heroes, their manner, minds and comportment. And the power of her argument’s facets are often enthralling and attractive, though in the manner of a attractive jigsaw puzzle that you can reshape, on occasion, into pictures of antithetical meaning to the original. I’ve rarely come across something so beguiling and repulsive in equal measure. I thank various deities that I didn’t read this when I was twenty and loudly atheistic and logical, as I’m sure I would have adopted it as an outsourced morality and code of living. That would really have pushed me over the edge of assholedom.

Lets finish on a winner:

“Wesley Mouch had a long, square face and a flat topped skull, made more so by a brush haircut. His lower lip was a petulant bulb and the pale, brownish pupils of his eyes looked like the yolks of eggs smeared under the not fully translucent whites.”

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3 responses to “Atlas Shrugged (and I went and looked in a mirror)

  1. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged some time ago and being quite taken with it. I picked my favourite sections and photocopied them so I could pore over them in the wee hours when I felt my motivation waning. I fervently hoped that fate would somehow conspire against time and space to bring the two of us together so that I could bash her head against a wall in rhythm to me chanting “You are a stupid, stupid woman!”
    I realise that it’s not the most eloquent argument, and that six words hardly stacks up against her expansive tome, but I think it contains the same intellectual merit.

    • It’s funny, I can totally see you, 15 years ago, in a dark room with our Ayn, doing things that would disgust many.
      Then I can see you 10 years later, in counseling, crying, probably drunk (again), admitting to where you buried the body which you were so ashamed of ‘knowing’ (secret meaning: in the gross, pink bits way).
      Admit it Timmy, Miss Rand would have made your boat float as a teenager. Admit it! God’s watching.

  2. Now, off you hop to read Matt Ruff’s Sewer, Gas & Electric and Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

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