Well. I’m finally done.
Finally, after weeks of alternating thrilling enjoyment and throw-the-book-across-the-room indignation, I have finished Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
I should warn those of you who haven’t read the book that although I really will try not to give spoilers, I don’t know if it’s even possible to review this book at all without giving spoilers. The whole mystery of even the basic plot itself was part of what made the book really fun in the beginning – so if you’re the kind of person who believes in having the certain “right” kind of experience out of a book (like me), you might want to just not read this at all. But if you’re feeling brave, read on…
I have a sneaking suspicion that Ayn Rand might have actually been slightly insane. At first I was totally all for everything her characters were saying about capitalism – until they started applying their principles of economy to every other facet of life. Her ideas get kind of disgusting, actually. But as far as that discussion goes, I’ll just leave it there – I don’t want to get started on my disagreements with her philosophy when I have so much to say about the actual literature.
Rand’s editor must have been struck dumb by her genius, otherwise I’m sure there’s no way he would have allowed the completely unnecessary length of this book. 1168 pages, which could easily have been cut down to 700, maybe less with a little more work. I was totally satisfied with Ayn Rand’s way of introducing her ideas in the first few hundred pages; the dialogue and actions of the characters revealed her opinions in a thoughtful, interesting way. But as I got further in the book, I wished she had just stuck to the actual plot instead of continually beating her readers over the head with speech after speech from her characters. She could have made do with less than half of those speeches, or at least made them all half the length. I think Ayn Rand believes her readers to be idiots.
Then there’s the characters, who are for the most part, completely unbelievable. Everything is black and white in this book; all the good guys believe the same thing (or at least begin to admit that they believe it deep down) and are excellent at debating for it. All the bad guys don’t know how to make a single good argument and contradict themselves at every turn, often resorting to yelling and screaming whenever they don’t get their way. (Really, Jim Taggart, when are you going to get strep throat from all this ridiculous screaming?!) And there are only good guys and bad guys, by the way. No in-betweens, or good guys who have opinions that differ somewhat from the opinions of the other good guys. (No matter how much the characters preach about everyone using their own mind and coming to their own conclusions, the evidence is clearly to the contrary, because everyone comes to the same exact conclusions, regardless of their experience, station in life, education, etc. They all spout the same stuff in exactly the same way; Rand doesn’t even bother to change her voice with each character.)
Also – and this is just kind of a personal irritation I had with the book – all the good guys can read each other’s minds. When they’re together, every other sentence goes something like this: “And then Dagny looked in his eyes and knew that he was thinking about their past together, thinking about the railroad and all that they had accomplished...” Because great minds think alike – SO alike that they actually think the exact same thoughts, apparently.
Then there’s the issue of Dagny Taggart. Oh, Dagny. I loved Dagny in the beginning – but by the end I hated her and all that she stood for. Dagny Taggart was Ayn Rand’s own personal put-down to every woman in America. Dagny was supposedly the perfect woman, the only woman good enough for all the great men in the book (and, might I add, pretty much the only female character worth beans) and yet, she still wasn’t as good as them, they had to teach her everything, they sat watching her with their indulgent glances – “Oh, yes, we know what you’re going through, dear – don’t worry, it will all be over soon, you can change your mind whenever you want, we won’t love you any less” – and never got mad at her for anything, as though she couldn’t help it and it wasn’t her fault. What – you slept with another man? Oh, well, I can’t cage a beautiful, free spirit such as you! (And besides, they can read her mind, so they always understand her motives perfectly.) And that’s the entire value of the character of Dagny in a nutshell. Just something for all the gods to fight over.
Did anyone else notice how Rand basically turned her characters into gods? Like Greek gods, who have unmatched physical beauty, power, and intelligence, and have a fabulous home unreachable by mortals, but occasionally make visits to earth in the form of a normal guy. Oh, and also, true to their godly nature, they all were pretty much superhuman from birth – sure, they worked for their industry, but they never really had to work for their intelligence. But they won’t acknowledge their natural ability as a gift from a higher power – oh, no, that wouldn’t do at all, because there is no higher power!
There was one character I particularly liked. (And I’m sorry for the spoilers in this part, but I just have to say this.) Eddie Willers, who has possibly the most ridiculous name and the most normal, believable character in the entire book. He’s not super-intelligent or super-attractive, but he is educated, hardworking, and able. He’s not the tip-top leader of a big business, but he is one of the hardest working employees of Taggart Transcontinental (although that often gets overlooked). And for all his normalcy, what does Eddie Willers get? The back seat, the back burner, the background. He hardly ever shows up, especially later in the book. And then, in the end, does anyone in the world care about his fate? All he ever did was serve the people he loved (oh, wait – that was probably his downfall, he should never have served anyone but himself) and do his best with what he had. But no one gave him the same courtesy. In the end, his unrequited love throws him a crust of bread by reading his mind for him, but that’s all she gives him in return. And while every other good guy gets a happy, godlike life – does anyone invite Eddie Willers to Atlantis, or even tell him about it? Even act, for a moment, like he might belong there? No, not at all – Eddie Willers gets to die pathetically on a train, practically insane, with no one bothering to remember his name. This made me angrier than anything else in the book.
In conclusion, I’ve come up with an alternate ending that, though not making everything perfectly okay, would certainly improve things and would make the ending endurable (definitely do not read this if you haven’t read the book!):
John Galt doesn’t escape his torturers; they eventually kill him. The others, thrown into a state of panic and mourning, start trying to run the place by themselves, but some people, going a little insane from the loss of their great leader, run away back to the outside world and start trying to patch it up. Dagny goes to Atlantis and goes into a state of general depression. After a few months she commits suicide, but not before she’s had affairs with Ragnar Danneskjold, Ellis Wyatt, and Midas Mulligan – you know, just to round things out. After she dies, no one really misses her, because all her men finally realize that they were unfairly abused. Francisco d’Anconia meets another girl who actually cares for him and is loyal to him, and falls in love with her – but the girl is not accepted by the community because she is a Christian and won’t give up her faith. So Fransisco elopes with the girl in the outside world and they join the outside world’s revolution. Hank Rearden tries to work his steel industry in Atlantis, but gets lung cancer from all the cigarettes he has smoked. The others, despite their superhuman intelligence, don’t even try to find the cure to save him because he doesn’t have any value to offer them, having spent all his money on equipment that turned out to be faulty and can now make no steel – so Rearden goes to his untimely death. As for Eddie Willers, Eddie does not decide to go on the Comet, but instead stays in the town nearby and begins to run his own small business. The business grows step by tiny step, until finally Eddie Willers himself is one of the great businessmen of the new age. He gets married to a much nicer and sweeter young woman than Dagny Taggart, has three children, and starts going by Edward.