During the move from Arapaho to West Q, I listened to the audiobook of Atlas Shrugged. Well, in the 20-30 hours of driving I got through half of it, anyway, and the rest was heard after I arrived.

It exceeded my expectations, though my expectations were pretty low to begin with. A lot of people who are sympathetic to the themes of the book admit pretty freely that it’s not a great book. So I was expecting thing characters, wooden dialogue, and so on. That’s what I got.

I did actually like the story, though, including a lot of the parts of the story that a lot of people don’t care for. Specifically, I refer to the parts of the book about the running of the railroad and the conquering of various logistical challenges and legal/regulatory restrictions. I apparently have an affinity for books, as one of the few college books I have subsequently re-read more than once was Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. The story of which is about a plant manager trying to improve the production of widgets of some sort. Basically, a novelization to convey certain theories about business.

And so it was with Atlas Shrugged, and some of the parts of it I found most interesting.

The biggest weakness was, as I expected, the characters. Ordinary Times’s Jaybird describes the heroes as being ridiculous but the villains as being ripped from the headlines. That strikes me as about right. My interest in e-cigarettes has reinforced this point, as the FDA and CDC compete with one another to sound the most like Atlas Shrugged’s State Science Institute.

But the heroes were stale. They were supposed to be archetypes of all that is good and true and virtuous in the world, and there’s not much you can do with that. However, giving them just a little bit of a sense of humor (of the exasperated variety, if nothing else) would have gone a long way. Humor has a great leavening effect that this novel sorely could have used.

The best characters were actually the female characters. Which is remarkable because there are very, very few of them. The lead is a woman, Dagney Taggart, of course, but she wasn’t the interesting one. Rather, the ones I was fascinated by were wife characters, Lillian Rearden and Cherryl Brooks Taggart.

Lillian was the wife of Hank Rearden, the secondary protagonist. She was obviously a villainesque character, but had an interesting mysterious quality about where she was going from and what was going through her mind (in a book where you find out, at great length, what is going through most characters’ minds). Cherryl Brooks Taggart was a grocery clerk who married Dagney Taggart’s brother (a villain, of sorts) who sort of played the up-by-the-bootstraps mindset in a world with little use for such things (and who, by virtue of her marriage, was actually on the wrong side of the book’s primary struggle).

As far as the ideology of the book goes, I agree with some of it and disagree with a lot of it. But I knew that going in. Nonetheless, I actually enjoyed the perspective presented a great deal. In part because of its relative novelty.

When the movie came out, somebody accidentally or not-so-accidentally referred to it in marketing as “a story of self-sacrifice” when it is, in fact, a story very much against such things. A part of me wonders if basically it was an act of subversion on the part of someone who was hired to to market a product they detested. But a part of me wonders if it was actually an honest mistake, that signals got crossed, and that pretty much any book that involves self-sacrifice is going to be in favor of it to some extent. Which is actually a reasonable expectation when it comes to fiction. One of the things I did really like about the book is that it did turn it on its head.

I enjoy the different, and whatever else I might say about it, this book was.

Category: Theater

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20 Responses to Atlas Shrugged, and I Listened To It

  1. Dave Pinsen says:

    There was a bit of selflessness in it. John Galt almost becomes the Jesus Christ of capitalism, until his friends risk their lives to save him. And Dagney’s former lovers are happy to let her be happy with the next guy.

    I figured that, as a new father, you’d have been struck by the relative absence of children in the book.

    • trumwill says:

      The thought (about the lack of kids) had crossed my mind a time or two when I was listening to it, but it’s only now that you mention it that the completeness (or near-completeness) of their absence is quite interesting.

      Fair points about the smattering of sacrifices, though in the latter case I view that as more of a respect for her autonomy than a sacrifice on their part. Galt does kind of give himself up, though.

  2. mike shupp says:

    Hmmm… remember the woman who shows up on one page, who is basically a good follower, and doesn’t trust intellectuals but assumes that “Whoever’s In Charge” is competent — and who winds up being killed when her train runs full speed into a blockage in a tunnel? She had a kid with her, if memory serves. So there ARE children in Atlas Shrugged.

    I don’t read much into this BTW. Rand herself was childless, probably by circumstance rather than design, and she was blocked off from her family in Russia, probably by choice. So family and child raising wasn’t high in her consciousness. And when later on, in lieu of children, she took an interest in young people, they were college students and the like who weren’t in a position to be raising kids themselves. So she just never had to think much about the psychological issues involved (and the philosophical choices) in raising kids. And she never really seems to have noticed the absence, and no one seems to have been tactless enough to mentioned this to her.

    I could be wrong of course. I haven’t read Barbara Brandon’s biography, and maybe stuff happened I’m ignorant of, but I have read a fair amount of newspaper and magazine coverage of Rand over the past 50 years or so, and nothing I recall contradicts my reading of things.

    Which is kind of sad, for Rand’s sake. And which suggests there may be some significant gaps in Objectivism (and libertarianism) as a complete philosophy for living.

    • trumwill says:

      I don’t remember that, but it may have been in there.

      I could be convinced either way on the relevance of the lack of children. On the one hand, children do complicate the narrative that we are responsible for where we end up in this world. On the other, I can definitely buy the notion that Rand’s biography here played the primary role.

    • Dave Pinsen says:

      Not entirely true. Rand’s collected letters includes correspondence with a relative about a niece, if memory serves. You sort of see Rand wrestle with a charitable impulse there.

      As for the train / tunnel incident, I thought that was a pretty good critique of fascism, to complement the critique of communism that was the story of the 20th Century Motor Co.

      • trumwill says:

        I thought the tunnel seen was well done. I thought it was a good layout of how the personal good (of the powerful) becomes conflated with the public good.

  3. Abel Keogh says:

    You’re one up on me. I never could finish the thing.

  4. mike shupp says:

    Oh my! I’ve read Atlas Shrugged three times now — about every twenty years — and The Fountainhead as often. And I look forward to reading them again in another ten years or so, and perhaps to yet another reading after that. We all should have ambitious goals in our lives.

  5. mike shupp says:

    Haven’t seen the movies — the reviews were just too damned cruel for me to seek them out. I think good films could be made of Rand’s books, but to do it right, they’d have to be big budget projects (not in terms of getting major stars, but just getting the sets right and having all the characters and trying to keep close to the dialog of the novels, etc.)

    As for being a “fan” … I dunno. I had the opportunity to join the campus libertarian group as a student fifty years or so ago, and chose not to, and it’s never troubled me, although I did consider myself an Objectivist for a long while. I read her books. I subscribed to The Objectivist Newsletter, all that stuff. I thought she was on to something important, but it never felt complete somehow. Sorry, I can’t quite define “complete.”

    And anyhow. time’s passed. I’m older, I’ve done stuff to be pleased about, and some stuff … not to be pleased about. And I’ve met people who succeeded in life and people who did all right and people who just totally failed, and I don’t see things with the clarity and mercilessness of an 19 year old kid anymore, and I’ve basically backslid into being a gormless almost-Liberal rather than a saved-by-the-faith Libertarian. The world’s a complicated place, there are ties and binds between us which individuals are wrong to deny. Moreover it’s an evolving place, so the notions of what were right and proper in say 1920 may not hold in say 2020 or 2120 — read some century old Supreme Court decisions, and see what I’m trying to point to.

    So I’m not exactly a Rand “fan” these days, but I found and still find her books readable, I can empathize with her characters, and appreciate many of her arguments. I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading her, and although I’ve shifted away from her politics in many ways, I still think she got a lot of stuff right. We need John Galts. We need Dagny Taggerts. We need Hank Reardons. And we need Eddie Villers types and Cheryl Taggert types as well — a point I think Rand tried to make, which her followers have mostly ignored.

    Oh well. Wasn’t that a simple answer?

    • Dave Pinsen says:

      The 1st movie was pretty good, and well cast for the most part. Part 2 wasn’t so good. Curious how they’ll handle the interminable John Galt speech in part 3.

      • trumwill says:

        If I were doing it, it’d be a montage of interesting imagery. That’s what they did at the end of Wings of Honneamise, which actually worked quite well. It would, obviously, need to be cropped. But that’s the direction I would go, with the imagery relating to everything falling apart.

  6. trumwill says:

    I actually liked the movies, to a degree. The attempts to contemporize it don’t work as well, and some of the cast-switches are a big jarring (like, everyone aged 20 years in between the two movies), but it more-or-less puts the book the film, which I think was its job.

    I’ve basically backslid into being a gormless almost-Liberal rather than a saved-by-the-faith Libertarian.

    That was kind of where my comment was coming from.

    And we need Eddie Villers types and Cheryl Taggert types as well — a point I think Rand tried to make, which her followers have mostly ignored.

    How did you see it making that point? Seems to me that Eddie got screwed. (And Cherryl dies, or course, but not because of the heroes.)

    • Dave Pinsen says:

      Her point was that Eddie Willerses are necessary but insufficient for modern society; without the Atlantes, they would be as screwed as everyone else.

  7. mike shupp says:

    Hmmmm? I don’t think you were making any particular point. I used to know people though, who at least professed indifference to Eddie and Cheryl and their ilk, on the grounds that only Rand’s hero and heroines deserved success and happiness. I think that’s a bad reading, and one of the things that dissuaded me from being a whole-hearted Libertarian.

  8. mike shupp says:

    Well, the standard objection to Objectivism is something like “Not Everybody Can Be Like John Galt. People Just Aren’t Like That!” And my recollection was that Eddie and Cheryl were shown as decent people with reasonable, if non-Galtian, levels of competence whom Dagny Taggert actually liked and respected. Which struck me as Rand’s answer to the Standard Objection, even before it was ever voiced — the world contains people worthy of value even if they aren’t Promethian heroes. By inference, there are many such people, and perhaps we should assume that in an ideal world, most people would be worthy of liking and respect despite being “ordinary.”

    Granted, left to their own resources, Eddie and Cheryl don’t come to wonderful ends. Well, that was sort of the point. And there’s a long tradition in novels of bumping off secondary characters (“red shirts”) to show readers How Serious The Situation Was.

    • trumwill says:

      I found Eddie’s exclusion from the Gulch interesting. On the one hand, he seemed like he would have wanted to stick it out. On the other hand, he wasn’t asked despite his virtues. While ordinarily not asking someone to join you isn’t an aggressive act. Arguably, in this case it sort of is.

  9. Dave Pinsen says:

    Good quote from Will Wilkinson on Atlas Shrugged a few years ago:

    By the way, Atlas buffs, the point of Atlas Shrugged is not that you are John Galt. The point is that you are not John Galt. The point is that you are, at your best, Eddie Willers. You’re smart, hardworking, productive, and true. But you’re no creative genius and you take innovation — John Galt — for granted. You don’t even know who he is! And this eventually leaves you weeping on abandoned train tracks.

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