By Ayn Rand
My only previous references for Atlas Shrugged are Paul Ryan, of course, and a very funny recap of the movie version of the first half on Grantland. This, however, has not stopped me from judging anyone who spoke positively of the book. So, when a friend of mine listed Atlas Shrugged as one of her favorite books, I mocked her without restraint. She, of course, replied that maybe I should try actually reading it, which seemed like a fair point, so here I go with another round of semi-live-blogging.
A quick warning, though: I lean so far left, politically, that President Obama and the Democratic party are significantly right of me. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, I caucused for Kucinich (devastatingly unsuccessfully), and if there were a viable socialist party in the United States, I would probably be a member. I am very obviously not the audience for this book, and I am, under no circumstances, diving into it with anything close to an open mind. I intend to hate it, with my reward being that I can then mock its fans with complete impunity.
Rebecca, who has also never read any Ayn Rand, has agreed to join me in reading Atlas Shrugged and ‘live-blogging’ it for the next several weeks. Kinsey has already read The Fountainhead, so she got a pass. So, with no more delay, let’s get started with the spoilers!
Via Eddie Willers, a childhood friend and business acolyte, we meet the Taggart siblings, who own the country’s largest railroad. James Taggart has a weak, droopy body to match his weak, droopy mind, and he is incapable of running the business because he is so concerned with doing moral good. Dagny Taggart has beautiful legs (that is seriously the first description we have of her, and it is important enough to be repeated later in the chapter). Her beautiful legs are somehow “incongruous” with her slender body, her angular face, and her sensual mouth. She is the opposite of her brother, and real big on making quick decisions.
In fact, she decides that Taggart Transcontinental is going to use a newly invented metal, which has not yet been put to any practical use, on all of their new rails. This seems like a very bad idea to both me and James Taggart, but since Dagny is the protagonist (and possibly a bit of a Mary Sue), I assume this does not lead to hundreds of people’s deaths.
We meet Hank Rearden, who invented this new metal, and who is despised by everyone, including his own mother, brother, and wife, for being so successful. He is described as having been called “ugly” because the “prominent cheekbones” and “sharp lines” of his face made him look older. He also has eyes “the color and quality of pale blue ice” and “ash-blond strands” of hair, so he sounds just hideous.
This chapter reinforces some really odd descriptors of nature vs. industry from the first chapter (which had an old and powerful-looking oak revealed to be rotted inside). Lots of buildings, trains, and construction equipment are described in loving and grandiose terms while an untended field is described as containing “bright, green, living weeds, like gorged cannibals.” I had to reread that line a couple of times because I couldn’t quite believe plants were being described as “gorged cannibals.”
Rands sets up her liberal strawmen, as Jim Taggart meets with his own metal developer (it is the kind of world where everyone has their own metallurgist, I guess), and a couple of other hangers-on, including a turn-coat friend of Hank Rearden and Rearden’s Washington lobbyist. They talk about how it is the responsibility of privately owned companies to take the whole of society into consideration when making the decisions, and the whole chapter is pretty agonizing to read as socialist-leaning liberal.
Rand is familiar enough with a liberal agenda to be able to put the basic arguments in her strawmen’s mouths, but she doesn’t understand how anyone could think that way, so none of their follow-up discussion points sound right or even make much sense. She, through the voices of Dagny and Hank, seems to feel that no one could truly believe in the liberal agenda, so people espousing it do so only for some hypocritical purpose, hiding their real motivations. I felt very tired and a bit depressed after this chapter.
So, here’s Rand’s difficulty: she’s trying to argue that pure self-interest is the truest and most righteous way to live, but her emotionless, self-centered protagonists are really difficult to empathize with. So, to compensate, she has to make every other character in the book super-dislikable to act as foils.
This is the first chapter, at page 83, in which two characters have a fully amicable interaction, when Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are threatening each other with using their own companies to take advantage of the other company’s struggles.
Meanwhile, our liberal strawmen have imposed an Anti-Dog-Eat-Dog Act (hilariously cumbersome name) that eliminates competition in the railroad industry. On the one hand, Rand is trying to show how liberalism/socialism can drive out successful business people by removing healthy competition. On the other hand, this act is in essence illegal price regulating that businesses themselves have used to remove healthy competition. This chapter made my head all fuzzy and confused.
This was my favorite chapter (or least unfavorite?) so far. We look back into Dagny and James’ past, growing up as children when they were somewhat more interesting. We also meet their childhood companion, Francisco D’Anconia, who is the last scion of a long family of Spanish nobility, heir to a number of copper mines, and definitely the most interesting character so far.
Francisco becomes Dagny’s lover in a truly uncomfortable sex scene that while obviously written as consensual, really reads like a rape. He later proves himself to be a complete psychopath by my consideration, and simply “has too great a capacity for joy…in a world where there’s so little occasion for it” by Rand’s consideration.
Francisco buys a worthless copper mine in Mexico, sinking a bunch of investors’ money in it, before letting the socialist Mexican government commandeer it. He describes in lengthy detail about how little actual money he ended up spending on the mines, building the shoddiest possible infrastructure that will collapse under the workers within the year, and return them to destitution even worse than they lived in before.
Dagny is appalled at how he could be so cold-hearted to the investors who trusted him with a financial return. The whole thing made me feel a little ill, which is, again, more strongly than I’ve felt about any other part of the book so far.
…And, done (for now). I am happy to hand over the semi-live-blogging duties to Rebecca for the next week, while I grimly work my way through the next section.