Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Atlas Shrugged - and I don't blame him

I have been reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for 5 years. Well, 3 weeks, but it feels like 5 years. My second-hand Kindle tells me I'm 40% through the book, and I've turned to Terry Pratchett for some light relief.

I started with Zac's copy of Lords and Ladies because the Mensa Annual Gathering Dinner had that title as its theme, accompanied by a pretty picture I thought was something to do with Hunger Games but was actually Game of Thrones. Both have the word "Game" in them and are ridiculously popular with some of the people I mix with, so you'll understand my confusion. I was planning to go as Granny Weatherwax, but the opportunity to dress in velvet and wear a tiara won out in the end. Wally went as Lorde.

We were the only ones who dressed up.

But I digress. The thing about Pratchett is that I find the Discworld both more realistic and a lot more entertaining than Rand's amorphous People's State of America, which she never actually names; the fact that a lot of "action" (I use the word loosely) happens between Colorado and New York is a clue.

I thought there might be some excuse if she were writing in support of the rampant anti-Communist times of McCarthyism, and indeed the book was published in 1957, so there is an element of that, I suspect. That unpleasantry was largely over by the time the book was released, and McCarthy died in 1957.

Nevertheless, Wikipedia tells me the book "includes elements of science fiction, mystery, and romance". I'm slowly seeing hints of the first, agree with the second, and can only assume (regarding the third) that she had some very passive relationships, if there is anything remotely autobiographical here. Again, though, that's probably the times.

As I see it, the main problem with the book is that she has used a nominally fictional vehicle for disseminating extreme views - hence its reputation as a right-wing manifesto - but it's really boring. You wanna read dystopian, Margaret Atwood is the go-to to go to.

In discussion with Jennifer (who hasn't read it), we thought that maybe she needed to write her manifesto as a frankly political book and get it out of her system before turning to fiction. It might have given Karl Marx a run for his money, though what I've read of him (Chapter 33, actually) wasn't that entertaining or enlightening either. So maybe not such a good idea. And besides, it turns out it was her fourth novel.

There are actually some good things in it. I particularly liked the sermon, dressed as conversation, that outlined a very cogent and coherent view of money as a tool, rather than being intrinsically evil in itself. I find convincing the argument that excessive government intervention stifles entrepreneurial effort and production - "excessive" being the operative word.

The woman can write well when she's not being didactic, but that's not often enough. She has a lovely turn of phrase about every 10%, and can describe the beauty of individual achievement with elegance, when she thinks of it. But mostly (so far) she seems to be criticising any human element in business decisions. Anyone who might be remotely sympathetic to the plight of the 'working man' is portrayed as pretty wimpy and a general waste of space.

It doesn't help that the female protagonist's surname is the same as one of my cats, but that's not her fault.

So my original question, posted on Facebook, as to why this book is on 'must read' lists remains unanswered by the book itself. Perhaps I have to finish it and find out what happened to all the disappeared industrialists before I can make a final attempt at judgement.

If you want to read it, so you can tick it on those lists that appear periodically on Facebook, I suggest you start with the Wikipedia entry. It makes more sense than reading the book, and I wish I'd read that first.

And don't, as most people seem to, condemn it on the basis of its reputation as being in support of a libertarian economy (which is kind of is, but not entirely). Its worst crime is basically how tediously it's written.

Now, back to Hogfather