Book Break: Atlas Yawned

Several months back, when I took a break from blogging, I spent many long weeks listening to an audiobook reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. From the opening chapter, I wanted to like it — it unfolds like a story that needs telling — but my guard was up: from what little I knew of the book and of Rand, I was certain to find parts of the book’s worldview objectionable.

In hindsight, I still believe there is a great story to be told in Atlas, buried among the monotonous monologues, ham-fisted philosophizing, immense egos, and sexual dysfunction and self-loathing. It is prescient in some ways, and in general, I agree with the dangers of rewarding inability and incompetence, and saw much I recognized in the progressive agenda and the corporate culture of political power, spin, and blame. On the other hand, the insistence upon ability as the sole criterion of the worth of a person, the overly simplistic and roundly negative presentation of religion, and the conflation of lust with love are fundamentally problematic for orthodox Catholics (and should be, I would argue, for Christians in general).
But as a reader and aspiring writer, the problems run deeper (or rather, shallower) than these. The books goes on and on, long after the point is made and the mystery solved. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are among the brightest minds of their era, and neither can put these pieces together? The mysterious John Galt; Francisco’s odd, destructive behavior; the disappearance of the captains of industry — and no one gets it except the reader. There is an odd parallel here to The Blair Witch Project, which opened with the knowledge that the protagonists were never seen again, so that the viewer was left with little in which to be interested, except to see how they bought it. In this case, however, we know they haven’t bought it — and we’re waiting to see how long it takes for the heroes to figure it out.

Answer: A long dang time.

Really, the only thing I was a bit uncertain about right up to the reveal was who the nameless rail-worker in the Taggart terminal was, and who he was spying for. Strangely, his primary source, the ever-loyal and reasonably intelligent Eddie Willers, shared no such wonder.
The book could be half as long and thrice as engaging, if only the characters talked less and connected the dots more. I would recommend it only to help people understand the frequent political and cultural references we still hear today. I’m interested in seeing the film version, as even spread across three movies, I have trouble believing the filmmakers could have been so long-winded onscreen. This may be the rare instance in which the movie surpasses the book.

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