Atlas Shrugged has long been a large blip on my literary radar, a behemoth of a novel that my friends who were lucky enough to go to high schools with AP English courses had read and (generally) lauded. About six months ago I finally found the time and space to actually begin my foray through its many pages. The book is so huge that, with my neck problems, I actually had to abandon my sister-in-law’s hand-annotated copy in favor of the digital version. It was simply too heavy to hold.
The weightiness of its size is something reflected in both its scope and tone. Atlas Shrugged plunges the reader into an ever darkening dystopia in which the world, more or less, is in the process of falling to Communism. The main characters are heroic and morally sound industrialists with capitalist values who exist in a bitter struggle against a corrupt oligarchy and a public torn apart by the most wretched of communist ideals. The book focuses mainly on Dagny, a female industrialist–a rarity in this world. She fights to preserve her families railroad, of which she is Operating Vice President. As the world crumbles around her, she has a torrid romance with Hank Rearden, head of a steel company who has just invented a brilliant new strain of steel that is lighter and stronger than anything previously made.
It’s in this first section of the novel when the beauty of the writing really comes through. Rand’s writing cuts razor sharp images that stick with the reader: the prow of Dagny’s apartment cutting across the New York skyline, Dagny standing on the construction site of the bridge she’s building out of Rearden steel, the first run of the John Galt Line (especially the moments she and Rearden spend in the train’s engine room), the two of them digging through rubble to find any clues as to who invented the motor they found abandoned in an old factory, and–most haunting of all–the image of the coal-powered train entering the long, unventilated Taggart Tunnel which marks a turning point in the novel.
Yet it is during the passages around the Taggart Tunnel disaster that the novel really begins to loose steam and become mired in philosophy. Don’t get me wrong–I appreciate that the novel has an idea it’s trying to present and promote, and I think that’s fine, given that it is Rand’s intention. What I dislike is feeling as though I’m being hit over the head repeatedly with a mallet inscribed with that idea. Many of the passages that get heaviest into her philosophies promoting capitalism and the union of the mind and the body could be chopped in half and would still feel way too long and preachy. Nowhere is this more true than in the passages about her discovery that all the industrialists who have abandoned their businesses and disappeared have gone to live in a sort of “Atlantis” hidden in the Rocky Mountains. Slogging through those passages was a chore. Listening to every industrialist explain to her why he had chosen to exile himself was nearly torturous.
Throughout the progression of the novel it becomes increasingly obvious that the characters are allegorical figures rather than actual human beings. The best example of this is Dagny herself. Her romance with Rearden seems to be built on an actual connection that the two have–not just a sharing of ideologies but on a more human level, they seem to like each other and be attracted to each other. As a reader, I felt compelled to fight for their romance. And yet when Dagny discovers that Galt is behind this resistance movement, she abandons any romantic feelings she may have had for Rearden in pursuit of Galt. Simply because he embodies the ideals by which she has lived her life better than Rearden, she chooses him. In truth, I felt as though she didn’t really have much of a romantic relationship with Galt at all–she didn’t really seem to like him. She just wanted to submit to him as she submitted to her ideologies. Given that her relationship with and feelings for Rearden felt much more substantiated to me, I felt betrayed when she just up and left Rearden for Galt. And even more so, I felt betrayed by Rearden’s bizarre acceptance of this choice. The Henry Rearden we met in the first part of the book would never have stood for this behavior, and in his sudden change the effort of the author to push the story in one direction to further represent her own ideals was tactlessly clear.
My favorite English teacher in high school once told me that there’s power in putting down a book. I believe that. When Dagny left Rearden for Galt I felt as though the book had jumped the proverbial shark. I knew that no matter what happened in the rest of the book, the main drive behind it would be to continue to shove this “communism is bad, capitalism is good” idealogy down my throat. I gave up and decided to read the Sparknotes.
In the end, Atlas Shrugged falls prey to the same problem that plagues so many science fiction narratives. In attempting to explore one intriguing idea or thought experiment, the story fails to present a realistic vision. It becomes too polarized and at times too simplistic. We have real-world examples of countries falling to communism that clearly illustrate this point, and we also have real-world examples of purely capitalistic societies that do a wonderful job of illustrating just how awful that economic and sociological framework can be too. To give just one example, consider the capitalism-driven African slave trade. Where were all the moralistic, high-minded capitalists then? The reason I find this frustrating is that if Rand had brought a level of intellectual depth to this novel, coupled with her beautiful and bold writing style, a truly brilliant piece of work could have arisen.