Big books don’t scare me. I’ve read Infinite Jest. I’ve read Middlemarch. I might even hit House Of Leaves one day, which is extra tough because the words don’t all go in the right direction. So it’s not the massy text that puts me off Ayn Rand, and even seeing my friends struggle with Atlas Shrugged wasn’t the ultimate deterrent – I spent long enough studying Middle English to let go of the idea that books should give me pleasure.
But the dreary working-out of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy (pathologised here by Johann Hari) in novel form – that’s what makes her books seem not worth picking up. Once you’ve grasped the essentials of the belief system, there’s nowhere for the narrative to go. Altruism is a corruption, capitalism is freedom, weakness is an imposition on the strong, etc etc. Fix the characters in within the cracked schema, and you’ve anticipated the moral conclusion towards which the plot is creaking.
Which is depressing on its own. But worse is the knowledge that Rand offers her make-believes as triumphant evidence of her own world-view. This isn’t the sympathetic curiosity that animated Eliot’s realist “experiments in life”, just a bludgeoning insistence on telling the reader How It Is:
In The Fountainhead I showed that Roark moves the world—that the Keatings feed upon him and hate him for it, while the Tooheys are consciously out to destroy him.
Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, ed. David Harriman (Penguin Dutton, 1997), p. 392
Roark is the genius of capitalism, Keating is the ambitious mediocrity, and Toohey is the collectivist anti-Roark. So Rand started out with a belief in the heroic entrepreneur. Then she wrote a novel in which the entrepreneur is the hero. Then she claimed she’d “shown” the truth of the position she started out with. It’s the basic Littlejohn manoeuvre: making something up, then screaming “you couldn’t make it up!” for the remaining word count.It’s a sort of genius I suppose – just not one that you’d want to try governing by unless you were a splinter-brained ideologue.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009