Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

I just finished reading through Atlas Shrugged a few days ago. I have read a little of Ayn Rand's non-fiction works before, and she definitely has some interesting ideas. Her defense of capitalism is good, her intention of trying to transvaluate values to better favor capitalism is well-meaning but a failure since her alternative of more selfish-orientated values is both very unsophisticated and fairly unappealing to most people. And she out and out fails to understand the positive role of charity within a free market system and the long history of beneficial voluntary charity throughout economic history.

Ultimately, her main problem really is that she doesn't have that many ideas. You go reading one essay to the next and she's just saying the same thing over and over again. I should've born this more in mind before I started her 1000+ page magnum opus, since she certainly does not have enough ideas to justify such a lengthy work.

The main complaint I have is that the book is simply repetitive, both ideologically and plot-wise. The same things happen again and again: a policy is passed and the business scramble to adjust under it's burden. Her heroes are constantly eying each other admiringly while her villains keep on making backroom deals to run the whole economy. Ayn Rand's villains keep on presenting the same justifications of socialism while her heroes defend her philosophy ad nauseum, even though they're just repeating points already made. The worst of it is John Galt's speech near the end. John Galt hijacks the radio airwaves at 8 pm one evening to spread his message of Randian Objectivism. The speech goes on for 3 hours (I was listening to the audiobook, and it took 3 hrs, 18 minutes). By 11 pm when he finished, most of his audience would probably be long asleep, thankful to Galt for his pleasant soporific, but she portrays it as this electrifying clarion call. His speech is a nice consolidation of the ideas presented in the book, but it's incredibly redundant. The ideas presented have by this point (about 1000 pages into the book) already been beaten into the head of the reader with a jackhammer.

Her writing style is also weak. Her ability to describe is both limited and used excessively. And character development is very weak. Her heroes are all bold, confident, independent and very intelligent. Her villains are all cowardly, conniving, afraid of responsibility and parasitical. This can hardly describe the typical statist or bureaucrat of the real world, and makes one wonder if she'd ever read about the "fatal conceit" of central planners, via Hayek (namely, the problem with central planners is not that they're afraid of responsibility, but are way to assured that they can run things better than the vastly complex self-organization of the market).

On the other hand, the degradation of the US under socialist tendencies in her book is poignant and bears not a little resemblance to events of today: the nationalizations, the forced cartelization, the purported attempts to encourage competition or "fairness" (a fairly flexible word). Socialism has always been parasitical on the productivity of the market, and one need look no further than the Soviet Union in the late teens and early twenties (before it reintroduced individual ownership) to see how quickly socialism left on its own can implode. Rand provides many illustrative examples that extend this point.

It's unfortunate though that doesn't confine herself to describing this situation, and condense the story down to its core. Instead, she draws it out through repetition of the same scenarios over and over again. If she had managed to do a much more economical task of efficient and pointed writing, instead of this long and luxurious overblown waste I'm sure I would have been much more pleased. One can't think of a more ironic similarity to government waste, that Rand manages to do in 1200 pages, what a better writer could've easily done in 200. Nonetheless, if you've got a hankering for a long read, it can be worth your time, and its recent upsurge in popularity is understandable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with your review. The novel is extremely repetitive. By the last 500 pages, I was utterly bored, and I was desperately waiting for something new to happen.