Signet, 1957 (1992 reprint), 1057 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-17192-6
I know that, no matter what, I won’t be satisfied with this review.
Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is bigger than most of the books I usually review. Not merely in a purely physical sense, but also in terms of ideas, reputation and social significance. It champions unusual ideas in a vigorous fashion. It has been credited with the creation of a cult/philosophy. It’s been hailed by various commentators either as a masterpiece or pure trash. Some call it their favorite book. Others think it’s simply obnoxious. You can find endless debates (some of theme quite ridiculously profound) everywhere on the world wide web. (noblesoul.com/orc/ is a great place to start. That they link to this review only adds to my own good opinion of the site.)
Trying to fit my own feelings about the book in 650 words, when considering the rich decade-old debate already surrounding the book, is somewhat intimidating. But I’ll give it a good try.
Atlas Shrugged starts as hard-core industrial fiction detailing the tribulations of a railroad company. All is not well in that world, though, as lassitude and plain apathy seems to corrupt society from within. Our heroine Dagny Taggart does her best to succeed, but she ultimately comes to realize that someone, behind the scenes, is doing his best to stop the motor of the world. “Who is John Galt?” indeed.
It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that Atlas Shrugged is not only science-fiction (it is!), but that it takes place in an alternate pocket universe with scant relation to ours. The curiously Soviet industrial feel of the book, with its pronounced brushed-steel aesthetics, is a dead giveaway. So are the ridiculously convoluted relationships between the thirty or so characters populating the book. Yes, Atlas Shrugged is one of those imagined worlds where everyone knows each other. (This becomes very handy whenever Rand gets around to postulating her main conceit, which depends on a few dozen people around the country.) The psychology of any of the characters is also incompatible with our reality, from the impossibly virtuous protagonists to the cackling villains. The antagonists of Atlas Shrugged are so impossibly evil and idiotic that you can only wonder at how they’re supposed to form an effective force. Rand stacks the deck a wee bit too much in her favor to make an impact. It just ends up being laughable.
And frankly, once I started giggling at Atlas Shrugged, it proved very difficult to stop. Strip the empress of her clothes, and Rand becomes a humorist. Brain-damaged characters spouting contrived slogans in a made-up universe; funny! Chapter VII “This is John Galt Speaking”, a fifty-page monologue clumsily stuck in the narrative; hilarious! The conviction by which Rand’s protagonists are so certain of what they’re doing; riotous!
As you may gather, I wasn’t completely convinced by Rand’s philosophy, or even her narrative. It surprised me somewhat; as someone routinely accused of having too much faith in other people’s rationality, I should be a prime candidate for Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy.
Instead, it strikes me as a dubious “rational” justification for acting like a selfish child. Calling other people “leeches” isn’t much of an argument. Superficially, Objectivism looks like an excuse for doing whatever you want without regard to other people. And that’s just, well, irrational. Some college students might love it, though…
Still, I don’t regret reading Atlas Shrugged. It is sort of an imposed event for serious readers, a good philosophy primer (if only on why you don’t agree) and an interesting book any way you look at it. Even despite the infamous monologue and the insufferable lengths, it was rather pleasant to read, and certainly managed to hold my attention. But then again, I did giggle a lot: “‘Who are you?’ screamed some terror-blinded voice. / ‘Ragnar Danneskjöld!’ “
- Price of the paperback: .50c at a garage sale.
- Time to read the book: Two weeks.
- Being amused by Objectivism: Priceless!