Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

Ayn Rand

Help me out here.

People rave about Atlas Shrugged, even claiming that reading it was a life changing experience. Well, I have never read it. I started to, but the prose was stilted, the plot was contrived and the characters were stereotypes, wooden and cardboard cutouts (if I may mix metaphors here). Frankly, I thought the book was rubbish and couldn’t be bothered to read past the first couple of chapters.

Anyone care to comment?

Please.

16 Comments

  1. ScotsToryB says:

    On noes!

    I’ve only just requested this as a Christmas present….

    STB.

  2. RobtE says:

    I’ve read it. A few times. Though there is one long speech, near the end, that goes on for something like 80 pages that I’ve never managed to get through. I tried reading it again a month ago and finally gave up after 600 pages or so.

    I reckon you’ve got it right. It is rubbish, for all the reasons you listed. I’ve wondered whether it isn’t because Rand’s first language wasn’t English. Though that didn’t hold Conrad back much.

    Still, it’s better than the Da Vinci Code. I couldn’t get past the second page with that one.

  3. CountingCats says:

    Yeah, the da Vinci Code was crap too, dreadful writing and the history was twaddle. However, people don’t use the da Vinci Code as a basis for their lives principles.

  4. Rob Fisher says:

    I read it and enjoyed it. You’re somewhat right about the prose and the characters. The speech is indeed tedious.

    But for all that I still loved it. I even found the plot compelling — it helped that I didn’t know much about it in advance. It’s supposed to be romantic, not portray a realistic world. Stereotypical, cardboard characters are allowed. Or are they not allowed because people on Newsnight Review would sneer at them?

    Sometimes I wonder if people try so hard to be literary (or movie, or whatever) critics that they prevent themselves for being able to enjoy stuff unless it meets some pre-conceived notion of what is supposed to be good, according to experts.

    There are some truly wonderful moments in Atlas Shrugged. Like the bit where it is explained why there are so many laws. Or the bit where the story is told of a man who tried to pay all his factory workers fairly.

  5. RAB says:

    Well I must confess. I havent read it or any of her others.
    And if her writing style is as poor as you say Cats, I wont bother.

    Johnathan over on SI is always recommending some book or the other that I have never heard of. I keep meaning to read some of them but never get round to it.

    Like Nick I am an instinctive Libertarian. Like him I had barely heard of Libertarianism and didn’t know much about it till I found the Samizdata site.

    There I found a bunch of mainly very smart people who, to my suprise, thought broadly like me.
    I was getting lonely. I have many friends and they are all lovely in their own way, but they are mainly Musos and are moonbats almost to a man, so getting a serious conversation going with them is head banging time. So I generally dont even try anymore and save that for here and SI.

  6. NickM says:

    OK,
    What RAB said. I have not and doubt I ever shall read Rand. I have heard too many people say the prose is clunky and the characters poorly drawn to bother.

    But I do understand why some people found reading her life-changing. But my life change happened half-way down a Samizdata thread when Perry de Havilland took time out to explain to me what a meta-context is. Then I think I got it. I had lurked on SI for ages and it took a while to get it. On another SI thread I posted about having been libertarian before I”d even heard a word and that comment drew a lot of attention.

    That’s why Rand changes lives. Because it’s very difficult to get libertarianism as a philosophy on your own and not just “let’s pay less tax and legalize dope”. I didn’t grasp the concept for quite a while. I think I now do but I’m a mild libertarian. The whole anarcho-capitalist thing doesn’t do it for me. It seems bonkers and totally unworkable. So call me a minarchist and throw me to the lesbians.

    Oh and RobtE… The language thing does matter. I disagree with you on Conrad though. I found “Heart of Darkness” a grim ordeal and “The Secret Agent” nearly killed me.

    Rob,
    The BBC Late Review’s pretentious wankers are not necessarily clever or indeed “literary”. A pal of mind at Uni was taught by Tom Paulin. Paulin is so far up his own sphincter that he’s ripped a new one in spacetime. In fact I find them utterly tedious. There is more artistry in a Sherlockian one-liner than all the tedious drivel that Proust ever spewed. I don’t think there is a pre-conceived idea all the time either. I think some of the stuff the “intellegentsia” spout just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I think it comes down to the old “if I have no idea what that means it must be clever”. Try reading Heidegger. Some bunch of jokers got an ignoble prize once for publishing something that made no sense whatsoever and som PoMo journal published it despite admitting to being utterly clueless as to what it meant.

    Or try Joyce. I mean what the fuck is that about? Great literature has to contain ideas and characters and plot and cracking prose. Frankly a big problem is… I saw something on the telly and apparently there are like six poets in the UK who actually make money from books and readings. The rest are on grants or are something like Hertfordshire Fire Brigade’s “Poet in residence”.

    The engine is red,
    The lights are blue,
    If your house burns down,
    We’ll try and save you.

    Job done. Can I have my 20 grand now?

    Contrast with, say, Shakespeare. He had to get folks into The Globe or he was up shit-creek. He had to write stuff people actually liked. They don’t anymore.

    Wittgenstein thought most academic “discourse” was wank. He preffered detective books and was never happier than going to watch a Western and munching a pork pie. If I self-fisted myself live on stage at the Edinburgh Festival Mark Lawson and all the rest of them would say it was “challenging” and “difficult” (which it would be!) but lets call a spade a spade. It would be a gross and unpleasant spectacle and anyone who would prefer to see that than watch “Where Eagles Dare” is either seriously deranged or a total pseud.

    In the good old days it was the poor and unlettered who were into the grotesque. Literary gentlemen would deride freak-shows. We have achieved inversion.

  7. Sam Duncan says:

    I’m kind of between the two Roberts’ – E and Fisher – opinions here. The prose is awful, but the plot is certainly compelling. I’m not a slow reader – I’ve read novels in one sitting – but it took me about a year to plough through Atlas. It’s tough going. I get the feeling Rand refused an editor (in fact I may have read that somewhere), or they were all too bloody scared to tell her what should be cut; it has that feel to it. Chop the guff out – which would probably halve the length of the thing, or more – and it would be a pretty zippy book; it has some terrifically quotable bits in it, punctuating the acres of sludge.

    I’d like to put a word in for Anthem, too. I doesn’t get the name of Atlas, maybe because it’s not such a good articulation of Rand’s philosophy, but as a short story I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was like reading an entirely different author: short, snappy and to the point.

    But, since Cats has mentioned it in another post today… The Probability Broach beats anything Rand ever wrote hands down.

  8. Sarah, etc. says:

    I’ve read it twice and wrote my master’s thesis about it (and other works).

    The prose seems clunky to you, I suspect, because I’m going to guess you don’t read a great deal of R/romance. Rand’s artistic vision was very much romantic, simple and passionate, sort of opposite her philosophy and ontology. The characters are drawn bigger than life and glaring so that they fit into the bigger than life plot (decades or a century of moral decay compressed into a year or so) and also so that they function as a sort of shorthand for expositing Objectivism via their relationships with each other and with Galt. I had a very difficult time getting into it the first time I read it, but after about page 200 I couldn’t put it down. As you read it, try to interact with it like you would a soap opera– take some time for extra-big suspension of disbelief, and then just look for all the big passion everywhere. Hopefully that will help you enjoy it more.

    As for it being life changing, most people say that because they read it at a very specific time in their lives. I first read it when I was 20 and yes, it was life changing. There seems to be a 16-20/21 window there where it can just turn your head around. It’s the prime of your Youthful Idealism and her ideas about morality and justice resonate even more strongly then, especially if you have a natural Libertarian disposition that’s been starved most of your life. It’s an oasis. And also, if you’re youngish, it’s an oasis with hot sex scenes. Jeff Walker tries to make this point as a negative in The Ayn Rand Cult and doesn’t do so hot.

    When you’re older and know a bit more and that idealism has started to fade it’s harder to be deeply affected by it in the same way. So that’s something you may be experiencing. Just life average sadder but wiser stuff.

    For a short primer on it and her philosophy, complete with hot sex scenes, rent the film The Passion of Ayn Rand. Helen Mirren and Peter Fonda both won awards for their performances. And it’s a very good adaptation of Barbara Branden’s book. And you get Mirren in her gorgeous Russian accent reading Galt’s most important lines during the montages of the writing of “Atlas.”

    I’d be eager to hear what you think!

  9. NickM says:

    Sarah,
    You’re not suggesting Dame Helen would get her kit off in a movie are you?

    “Short primer on … philosophy complete with hot sex scenes”.

    Sure beats the hell out of the German Idealism I had to read up on for my Masters…

    Or to put it shorter and sweeter – I prefer cunt to Kant.

  10. CountingCats says:

    You’re not suggesting Dame Helen would get her kit off in a movie are you?

    Yes, and in these days she was a kinda hot chickie too – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Consent_(film)

  11. El Draque says:

    I read Atlas Shrugged.
    One book that I wouldn’t re-read though – and that’s one measure.
    At the time I was heavily into free-market economics, I only discovered “libertarian” a few years ago. They are related, but not the same, by a light-year.
    Dame Helen was voted “Naturist of the Year” not so long ago.
    Not relevant at all, just thought I’d mention it.

  12. Nick M says:

    I was being sarky Cats. Ms Mirren is actually still pretty foxy.

  13. CountingCats says:

    Sure, but how often do I get a chance to link to a picture of Helen Mirrens twenty two year old bum?

    (Link from previous comment repaired)

  14. RAB says:

    Helen is a Naturist!!??
    I dont believe it.
    She is way too foxy indeed to be a naturist.

    I know of which I speak.
    My wife and I used to go to a Sauna place in Bristol, together with another couple.
    It was situated in an old Georgian town House in Portland Square.
    Ranged over about six floors, it had the sauna, steam room and ice cold plunge pool in the basement. Then the next floor up was the changing rooms. Strip off and get into a towel. Then next up was a cubicled “massage” area, then the next floor was a snack bar and television lounge.
    Weird experiences I have had you know. Eating a toasted cheese sandwich while watching Coronation Street, wrapped only in a towel, surrounded by a room full of Lucien Freud models, similarly clad.
    Which is my point. You’d think that people who love to get their kit off would make sure that they actually had a body beautiful to display.
    But universally they are the fattest most lardy bunch you can come across.
    Oh I forgot to explain.
    This was a gay hangout most of the week (you dont want to wander into the attic for instance, rubber, chains and mirrors)
    But on Wednesdays it got booked by these ugly Naturists.
    But hey a good sauna is hard to find so we went with the flow. You came out on a frosty January night, feeling that radioactive Ready Brek glow.

    Rob has an interesting point as to whether critics have trouble appreciating things after they become critics.
    Well as one of those Critics, I would say
    Yes it does.
    But then I could spend an entire thread on this alone. It is very complicated.

  15. [...] I’m not an objectivist. Hell, I can’t even read Atlas Shrugged, but even so I gotta be chuffed that a celebrity like John Galt is willing to join us. All the way [...]

  16. Julie near Chicago says:

    I love commenting on Older Threads. :)

    Ahem. I’ll have to re-read that first chapter. I think I did have a little trouble getting oriented in the first few pages. And being of a somewhat Hobbitty turn of mind, it bugged me for years that I couldn’t quite make out whether A.S. was properly SF or not.

    Yes, stylistically Atlas is wildly different from most modern popular fiction. Yes, NickM, anyone who thinks James Joyce is worth shelf space must be using him as bookends. (I speak only Truth, and never Snark.)

    Some of the language in just the first couple of pages, I think, is a bit stilted. In particular, the description of Eddie Willers’ encounter with the “bum.”

    However, I recently read a remark holding that the real problem with Atlas is that it is a Russian novel. There may be something to this–the only Russian novel I ever read was The Brothers Karamazov. I liked it pretty much. “And,” she added brightly, “I saw the movie of Dr. Zhivago..”

    In any case, I don’t entirely agree about “cardboard characters” in Atlas. I thought that in particular Rearden was perfectly human and certainly not two-, let alone one-, dimensional; Dagny also pretty human; and I had the distinct feeling that I “knew” James Taggart. Francisco d’Anconia also had some depth (and no one but Andy Garcia should ever be allowed to play Francisco).

    But Rearden, not John Galt, was really the Leading Man–the male protagonist.

    It’s John Galt who was the Cardboard Character.

    That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. :>)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: