Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged
Atlas Shrugged

Ayn Rand
 "This is the story of a man who said that he would stop the motor of the world and did. Was he a destroyer or the greatest of liberators?
Why did he have to fight his battle, not against his enemies, but against those who needed him most, and his hardest battle against the woman he loved? What is the world’s motor — and the motive power of every man? You will know the answer to these questions when you discover the reason behind the baffling events that play havoc with the lives of the characters in this story.
Tremendous in its scope, this novel presents an astounding panorama of human life — from the productive genius who becomes a worthless playboy — to the great steel industrialist who does not know that he is working for his own destruction — to the philosopher who becomes a pirate — to the composer who gives up his career on the night of his triumph — to the woman who runs a transcontinental railroad — to the lowest track worker in her Terminal tunnels." 

   Whenever I read a book, I’m always eager to go online to sites like GoodReads and Amazon to read the reviews and see what other people thought about it. Doing so with this book, I was surprised to find that, despite its status as a classic, Atlas Shrugged is incredibly polarising, perhaps the most polarising of any book I’ve ever read.
   Reviews for the book seem to fall into either five or one star ratings, with only a scattering of reviews in the middle. People seem to either completely adore it or loathe it, and which camp you fall into seems to depend largely on how much you agree with Ayn Rand’s personal objectivist philosophy.

   This is understandable I suppose as it’s very hard to separate Rand’s personal views from the story. They go hand in hand, the book is written from the perspective that Rand is 100% correct in all she believes, that there’s no room for error. Side with her and be saved or go against her and fall.
   Therefore, it’s perhaps strange that, despite disagreeing with pretty much everything Rand has to say, I still really enjoyed this book.
   It’s by no means perfect, in fact in places it’s severely flawed. Let’s start with the length, nearly 1,200 pages. No book, no matter how well written, stretches to 1,200 pages without feeling padded and indeed that’s the case here. While there’s no plot threads that feel like complete wastes of time, there’s still much, particularly towards the beginning that doesn’t really lead anywhere in the grand scheme of the novel. By the time you reach the end, it will feel like the main plot has shifted focus several times, as if the book is running through a series of episodes rather than one over arching plot.
   Then there’s Rand’s style. I was actually a huge fan of the world in this book, I found Rand’s descriptive passages a joy to read and felt I understood every location perfectly. The characters too (or at least the main characters, the multiple side characters had a tendency to run into each other in my mind) each had unique voices and I found their dialogue enjoyable….when it was brief.
   That’s the main problem with the style, when Rand can keep dialogue snappy she has decent skill with it, however she has a tendency to let characters run on for multiple pages without taking a breath. You’ll be following a conversation only to find yourself confronted with a massive wall of text which amounts to a character saying the same thing over and over again with as much detail, metaphor and anecdote as they can possibly cram in. If each of these passages were cut down, if the characters were made to state their case, once, clearly, to the point and move on, the book would be half as long as it is now.
   This penchant for wall of text conversation becomes almost a parody of itself by the end of the book, when John Galt hijacks a radio broadcast and rambles on, completely uninterrupted for sixty straight pages, delivering a speech which could be easily boiled down to simply, “Greed is good”.

   But like I said, I did enjoy this book, mainly for the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Dagny is the real brains behind the Taggart rail lines, letting the weak board of directors and her imbecile brother think they are in charge while she keeps everything running smoothly behind the scenes. Hank Rearden is the inventor of Rearden metal, a new alloy,  lighter than steel but ten times as strong. As the novel progresses, both continually clash with a government and society that’s continually turning in favour of the “leeches” and shunning the actual producers.
   As with the plot, it’s impossible to separate Rand’s philosophies from her characters, occasionally with uncomfortable results. Rearden at one point tells Dagny that he’ll never love her and that he’ll engage in a relationship with her for his own pleasure alone and proceeds to engage in a not-quite-a-rape-but-still-uncomfortably-rapey sex scene with her while she sighs in ecstasy because he’s so objectivist. So selfish.
  Despite Rand’s obvious love for both of them, they’re horrible, unlikable characters, selfish to the point that they’re willing to doom an entire country to starvation if they don’t get their way. Still, the world of the novel is so cartoonishly skewed against them that it’s impossible not to root for them. With each no restriction placed on them by the government, you yearn for them to break free and win the fight. The problem though, is that Ayn Rand believes that the restrictions and downward spiral that America finds itself embracing is actually possible….I’m not so sure it is…

   If this review feels a little all over the place it’s because my feelings toward this book are the same way. Like I keep saying, despite its flaws I did enjoy this book, but it’s hard to put my finger on exactly why. There were several moments in this book that I adored, but several that had me almost giving up. Several passages of such beauty that I had to re-read them several times….but then came the clunky blocks of dialogue that I longed to skip over…
Ayn Rand   Part of the key to enjoying this book, perhaps, is separating Ayn Rand from it as much as possible. She may well think everything she writes about is correct and that it’s an inevitable future for our society unless we embrace her views, but, if you can peel her away and look at this book as the pure work of fiction that it is, there’s a decent (if over long) story here with and enjoyable cast of characters.
   I’d recommend everyone give it a go at least once. I can’t think of any other work quite like it, one so epic in scale and controversial in nature. It is a book worth experiencing, even if the experience isn’t always great. 

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