Friday, June 21, 2013

Atlas Shrugged Chapter 8 - reasons to be a bad novelist - plus, I am not alone

One of the most stunning aspects of Atlas Shrugged fandom is how many fans declare that Ayn Rand was a good novelist. You can read the praise for yourself on the Amazon comments for the novel.

Now I can see why fanatical right-wingers would defend the novel - because it is in complete agreement with their extreme us-against-them view of the world, let's kill the moochers, etc. etc. But to claim it's a good novel? By what twisted bizarro world standard could Atlas Shrugged have literary value?

I happened to read Chapter 8, The John Galt Line, this evening and it is a veritable catalog of why Ayn Rand was such a truly bad novelist. Let us count the ways:

The chapter starts out with a two-page monologue by Eddie Willers, Dagny's loyal flunkie. I have to say that I spaced out a little while reading it because while the point of the monologue is sheer exposition, the exposition reiterates for the hundredth time the message of the book, which is that the Randian Supermen are superior, and the moochers are inferior. So at about the half-way point I had the impression that Willers was talking to somebody on the phone and we could only hear his side of the conversation - as if this was a play instead of a novel. But actually no, he's talking to somebody who is right there in the room with him. I had to go back and check because the reference to the other person is so fleeting it made no impression:
The worker smiled, looking at Eddie Willers across the table.
"I feel like a fugitive," said Eddie Willers. "I guess you know why..."
That's it. "The worker smiled." The entire next two pages are Eddie Willers' stream-of-consciousness to the worker.

As I recall, one of the signs of Aspergers is "one-sided verbosity" and this example is so extreme because it's in the context of a novel, and it breaks all the rules of writing a scene containing two alleged people. Although you could make the argument that Rand doesn't consider a worker people.

But the one-sidedness is so extreme that the smiling worker is apparently asking Willers questions but Rand can't even be bothered to write out what the worker says:
No, no, I never asked her why she chose that name. A sort of challenge I guess... I don't know to whom... Oh, it doesn't matter, it doesn't mean a thing, there isn't any John Galt, but I wish she hadn't used it. I don't like it, do you?... You do? You don't sound very happy saying it."
Rand even has Willers say that the worker doesn't sound happy, as if to underline the fact that she couldn't be bothered to just let the worker talk.

Now this isn't some kind of literary device. For the first seven chapters the conversations in the book were written in the standard way. She just suddenly felt like giving Eddie Willers an expositional monologue without any tiresome talking from the other side.

Or consider this tortured sentence a few pages later, while Dagny is having a sort of braniac amour:
A man who existed only in her knowledge of her capacity for an emotion she had never felt, but would have given her life to experience...
But even more egregious than Rand's crappy technique is her inability to create a logical, coherent world for these Supermen and moochers to dwell in. Consider this strange juxtaposition - apparently this world has a free and open stock market and yet the "businessmen" are idiots:
A few businessmen thought that one should think about the possibility that there might be commercial value in Rearden Metal. They undertook a survey of the question. They did not hire metallurgists to examine the samples, nor engineers to visit the site of the construction. They took a public poll. Ten thousand people, guaranteed to represent every existing kind of brain, were asked the question: "Would you ride on the John Galt Line?" The answer was, overwhelmingly, "No, sir-ree!" 
No voices were heard in public defense of Rearden Metal. And nobody attached significance to the fact that the stock of Taggert Transcontinental was rising on the market; very slowly, almost furtively.
OK so this is a world in which most businessmen don't even think that one should think about the possibility that there might be commercial value in Rearden Metal. And of the few who do, they don't hire metallurgists to test the metal, they survey "every existing kind of brain."

So that begs the question: who is buying stock in Rearden Metal? And on what basis are they buying the stock? Because in spite of the fact that this world has a free and open stock market, its newspapers are tightly controlled by some all-powerful anti-fact monopoly:
No space was given by the newspapers to the progress of the construction of the John Galt Line. No reporter was sent to look at the scene. The general policy of hte press had been stated by a famous editor five years ago. "There are no objective facts," he had said. "Every report on facts is only somebody's opinion. It is, therefore, useless to write about facts."
So if even businessmen don't care about facts, how does the stock market in this world work? Hank Rearden brags how much money he's going to make on it by converting Dagny's bonds into stock, and Dagny brags about being a major stockholder in the John Galt Line, so it must be a legitimate financial market. But who else is playing the stock market? Only Randian Supermen? But if there are that many of them, enough to populate a functioning stock market, how is it that their world is completely controlled by the moochers?

In other words, Ayn Rand, who liked to think of herself and her supporters as supremely rational has created a world that does not add up.

And then there's the fact that apparently the one and only test of a bridge made of Rearden Metal will be to drive a train full of people over it.

The chief metallurgist of Associated Steel (who must be unemployed since not even profit-seeking business men will hire metallurgists in Rand World) opines:
"Why no, I don't say that the bridge will collapse... I don't say it at all. I just say that if I had any children, I wouldn't let them ride on the first train that's going to cross that bridge. But it's only a personal preference, nothing more, just because I'm overly fond of children."
So apparently the government run by the Moochers is unable to require the testing of the structural soundness of a bridge before allowing it to open for business.

And then there is the logistics of the John Galt line test drive, going from Cheyenne Wyoming to Denver Colorado (103 miles according to Google Maps - and apparently Rand World has cities with the same names as ones in the real United States):
Eddie Willers was watching her. He stood on the platform, surrounded by Taggart executives, division heads, civic leaders and the various local officials who had been outargued, bribed or threatened, to obtain permits to run a train through town zones at a hundred miles an hour.
So the Moocher government, which up until now has been a formidable opponent against the Randian Supermen, couldn't figure out that all they had to do to prevent the John Galt line from its public-endangering test run was to enforce the existing zoning laws.

Who exactly bribed these local officials? Rand doesn't say - she uses the passive "had been bribed" - but obviously it was somebody acting on behalf of the John Galt Line. So the mighty individualists are able to achieve their crowning moment of glory in the most pedestrian way possible - through the corruption of petty officials.

And let us stop and consider for a moment why public officials would allow themselves to take bribes to permit a train to barrel through their town at dangerously high speeds. Clearly their actions were not for the public good. No the bribed officials were acting out of selfishness.

And as Hank Rearden is constantly bragging, selfishness is the best thing ever. Ayn Rand must believe that the selfishness of public officials in taking bribes is a very good thing indeed.

There are so many other examples of this brain-damaged incoherence and failure of rationality. But for now, I will go to the end of chapter eight, which made me recall the character Louis in ANGELS IN AMERICA saying to former lover Joe Pitt, after they'd just had a vicious fight: "it was like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel."
The shock became numbness spreading through her body- she felt the tight pressure in her throat and stomach - she was conscious of a silent convulsion that made her unable to breathe. But what she felt, without words for it, was: Yes, Hank, yes - now - because  it is part of the same battle, in some way that I can't name... because it is our being against theirs... our great capacity, for which they torture us, the capacity of happiness...
Apparently Dagny can't stop thinking about the parasites even while she's being uber-ravished by Hank Rearden.

It only gets more S&M from there. And remember, this book was praised by the former head of the Federal Reserve like this:
"Atlas Shrugged" is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. 
We will get to the perishing of parasites in Atlas Shrugged soon enough.

I guess I was foolish to think that I was the first to  live blog Atlas Shrugged. This person beat me to it by a couple of years. Although she seems to have not finished it yet, which is a worrying sign for me. I am looking forward to reading her posts, she notices things that I missed - she's absolutely correct in her comment about a scene at the Rearden anniversary party:
The talking heads tell ghost stories about a Norwegian pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, exactly as if he were Bloody Mary and they were trying to conjure him up in a bathroom mirror.
And thanks to one of the comments on the post, I discovered this hysterical Atlas Shrugged parody. It's a pitch-perfect rendition of Rand's style and I laughed out loud several times, especially here:
 A distinctive sound caught Dragnie’s ear as she neared the main entrance lobby. It was the sound of a human voice, emanating from the school’s auditorium. She felt herself drawn involuntarily toward it, as if something in her unconscious were responding to something of which she was not conscious.