[AS POSTED TO GOODREADS]
Whoo-boy. Where do I start with this book? If capitalism could have a wet dream, it would be ATLAS SHRUGGED. It is insane and outlandish and unreasonable. But it is also entertaining. I tend to enjoy Ayn Rand's work despite her best efforts. That's an odd thing to say, I know, but I'll try to break it down.
First, the things I liked: I really appreciate how well Rand gets corporations nailed down. If you ask someone who lives the corporate lifestyle a direct question, you will always get a long, rambling, meaningless answer, even if it's a yes or no question. No one wants to make any decisions because if they're wrong, they'll be blamed. Culpability is certainly shifted around constantly in this book until it nails some poor guy who didn't really have much to do with whatever went wrong. It's also like these corporate swine can't hold a decent conversation with intelligent people. There are quite a few instances of Dagny talking with someone, and it's like there are two conversations happening. Dagny asks direct questions, and the other person will ramble on about their life story, or whatever. They just have this narrative in their head that they have to get out, and poor Dagny gets stuck listening to it. I really identify with this kind of dialogue because I deal with it constantly every day at work.
The things I don't like are a bit hard to discuss because they start with something I do like. I agree with many of Rand's ideas, as I'm sure most creative people would. I'm a strong believer in independent thinking. I think taking other people's ideas to make it their own is a watery thing to do. I believe that if someone earns something, he or she should be able to keep it. Plus, if I may be so bold, I'm a bit selfish. As anyone who has ever dated me will attest, I tend to put myself before anyone else. Maybe I'm delusional, but I justify it in the same way a parent would justify putting the oxygen mask on themselves before putting one on their kid while on a plane.
The problem is, Rand takes it waaaaaaay too far. The heroes of this book are so fiercely individualistic that they don't care about anyone else (for the most part). They're so selfish that to help someone else is unthinkable to them. Not only that, but they are absolutely dedicated to the dollar. Their symbol is the dollar sign. It's even on their cigarettes. This is militant individualism, and it's too crazy for me. I do believe in helping people, after all. I do care about society. I do think that there should be safety nets because disaster can happen to any of us. (Although I do think that American safety nets are a bit too giving to the point of rewarding questionable behavior.) I believe in pulling oneself up by the boot straps, as the old saying goes, but it's unhealthy to live your life dedicated to that kind of thing, and if you need a helping hand every once in a while, you should get it.
You know who makes the perfect Objectivists? Terminators. Not Arnold in the sequels, but Arnold in the first one. They are killing machines that stop at nothing until they achieve their objective, or they'll die trying. Remember that John Galt says he'll kill himself before letting the looters exert control over him.
The heroes are cold and inhuman. Ayn Rand, from what I understand, was the same way. Not only that, but I heard that she was buried with a garland in the shape of a dollar sign. So I guess people like that *can* exist. But generally speaking, I think they're rare (and possibly sociopaths).
The only time they're passionate is when they're making love, and Rand's description of these scenes makes it sound more like they're fighting each other. This is some violent sex, folks. In a way I kind of like it because it's not something I expected from her work. But on the other hand, I think it's kind of messed up because this is the only time in Dagny's life that she's submissive. I think it sends the message that strong women want to be treated like "just a woman" in bed, which I don't think is true, generally speaking. It's also out of character for her.
Rand uses interesting language in this book, though. I like the way that some of the tougher characters talk like sergeants in WWII movies. It's "goddam" this and "those bastards" that. Conversely I don't like the way that the looters, as she calls the villains, talk. They're all hysterical and screaming when something they don't like happens. And they all sound the same. They use the same phrases. Come to think of it, the heroes run together, too. There are two types of characters in this book: heroes and looters. The heroes all sound the same, and the looters all sound the same.
Two characters do not fall into either category: Cheryl Taggart and Eddie Willers. As a result, I actually like these two more than any of the other characters. In fact, I kind of identify with Eddie, mostly because I'm not a one-track-mind kind of guy. I also feel pretty helpless in the big picture, but I also find the situation funny. As America faces utter destruction from the looters and their red tape, Eddie utters a mad laugh, amused by the fact that no one is changing anything because they're all convinced that they're right.
Speaking of red tape, that's another thing about corporations that Rand gets spot on. I find there are way too many regulations in government, and they hamper real creativity. Yet once the red tape gets spinning, it's impossible to stop without destroying the system entirely. Which is pretty much John Galt's mission. I'd call that a spoiler in any other book, but this one is revealed 500 pages before the end, so to hell with it.
Speaking of length, the number one thing that annoyed me about this book is the sheer thickness of it. I'm not opposed to reading long books. When I was a kid, my favorite book in the world was Stephen King's THE STAND. The extended version, that is. My problem with Rand is that her prose is incredibly bloated. She needlessly repeats herself as if she was afraid that people would miss the point. Don't worry, Ms. Rand. We got it pretty solidly by the hundredth time you repeated it. Some characters get speeches that are pages long, and they're all rambling and repeating themselves a lot. For Christ's sake, the climax of the book is John Galt's 60 page speech. At the risk of coming off like Rand, let me repeat that so you can let it sink in: A 60 PAGE SPEECH. The edition I read is 1168 pages long. If I were to write this book, I think I could get it done in under 300.
The story is simple enough to do that. On the surface, it's about a woman who wants to build the best railroad she can in the face of her incompetent brother and her lovers' (that's not a typo) attempts at destroying America. Meanwhile, all the most competent men (and it's almost universally men) in the nation are being recruited by a mysterious man to live in a secluded valley from which they intend to rebuild America after they've let the looters destroy it.
This story actually takes a few odd turns, like when Dagny arrives accidentally at Galt's Gulch. (By the way, I should mention the completely insane idea that she piloted a plane to get there--and she doesn't know how to fly it, but she learns on the spot. That's how capable a person she is, I guess.) It has this weird feeling, like the end of THE WIZARD OF OZ. She's seeing all of these people who have disappeared, and it feels like Dorothy telling the farm hands that they were all in her dream. It's a pretty dreamy sequence, too. For a moment, I thought she'd died in the plane crash, and the afterlife turned out to be some kind of Capitalist Heaven. I wouldn't put that past Rand, even though there were still 500 pages to go in the book.
And I certainly didn't expect a book driven by ideas to have something as crude as a gunfight in the end. I do have a few things to say about that, but they're spoilers for real, and I try to avoid those for Goodreads reviews.
This is probably the longest I've written about a book since college, but I think I hit all the major points. I don't want to be as bloated as Rand, so I'm going to cut this off by saying this: for a book that aggravated me so much, I really enjoyed it. Despite all of its flaws, it's a good book, and Rand is a captivating writer. If anyone else had pulled this BS, I would have quit on them. (Truthfully, I almost quit when I reached Galt's super-long speech, but I was already 1000 pages in, and I wasn't going to quit when I was that close to the finishing line.) As an added bonus, this book made me think a lot, and I really love a book that can do that.
WHAT I DIDN'T PUT INTO THE GOODREADS REVIEW (SPOILERS): There are two things that really turned me off about this book. One of them involved the gunfight in the end. It's one thing to be a cold, uncaring asshole, but it's another entirely to cold-bloodedly murder someone, as Dagny did in the end. When the heroes are trying to rescue John Galt from the looters, she holds a soldier at gunpoint. Granted, she gives him every opportunity not to get shot, and the dummy just couldn't give her a straight answer, but that's no excuse for shooting him in the heart. The other heroes get to commit a few murders, too, much in the same way she did. I'm a firm believer that people can be assholes. I, in fact, am an asshole. People can take me or leave me. That's their choice. But once you cross that line into hurting and/or killing people you disagree with, that's downright evil. That's some Hitler/Stalin-type shit right there. I get the idea that this is the kind of thing Objectivists think about when jerking off.
The other thing that bothered me was Eddie's demise. The last we see of him, he's a broken man, weeping on the railroad tracks before the monolithic Taggart train. I don't think he deserved that. I know that was part of Rand's heartless message, that even those who believe the importance of individualism despite being unable to do anything about the state of the world will perish with the looters. But still.
OK, that's it. Sorry if I bored the hell out of you. This is just something I had to get off my chest.