Monday, January 28, 2008

Plot inadequacies in Rand's novels

I agree with many of Rand's premises such as individualism, meritocracy, and free market capitalism to a large degree. However, I think she did a piss poor job trying to prove her point in her novels. Here are parts I find most sorely lacking.

For someone who places such importance on human potential, there is very little in way of illustrating the process by which one comes to actualize the potential. In a highly recommended review, Shane Gline writes: "The most interesting thing about Roark is how little genesis there is in his thinking: there's just the Randian world-view, fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, from page one." Ditto for most of her other characters, especially John Galt. All her characters are introduced to us as these highly productive, perfect people who just knew they were right and living out an ideal life. Their only faults were giving the little people in their life too much credit. Some proponent for the potential and dignity of the common man she was.

Eerily, even during the flashbacks to the past, the child Dagny and Francisco talked and behaved in an unrealistically unchildlike and overly serious manner. Tragically, this is the way Alyssa Rosenbaum remembered her childhood. Barbara Branden said that Rand often said that as a child she was often "disgusted" and "felt contempt" at things and people. Various accounts describe her as a distant and serious child.

One of her big themes is overcoming obstacles in life. Here, she totally misses the mark. Sure, the giants of industry managed to overcome the obstacles that big government and the "public good" had placed upon them, but they also had at their disposal their mammoth industrial empires, and their seemingly unlimited intellectual and physical strength. "Effortless" seems to be one of her favorite words, which she overuses to the point of ridiculousness. In real life, overcoming an obstacle is never "effortless" and the vast majority of people do not have superhuman levels of intelligence and wealth. She eschews the opportunity to show how battles against obstacles are really fought and won in reality.

When I was reading Atlas Shrugged, the most poignant moment was when Cherryl Taggart committed suicide after running away from a liberal, feminist social worker. She was one of my favorite characters that I could really identify with. This was also the turning point for me, when the book changed from being a compelling psychological thriller to just plain ludicrous. Someone who had painstakingly overcome dire poverty in rural upstate New York would not have killed herself over something as silly as discovering that her lover wasn't all she thought he was, or being snubbed by the popular rich girls. That sounds a lot more like something a spoilt heiress with an entitlement complex (hint: Dagny) would do. A real life Cherryl would have had the balls to dump the loser Jim Taggart, told the feminist social worker to stuff it, started her own business enterprise, and found a man worthy of her love. The fact that she killed herself does not compute with what is supposed to be a celebration of the triumph of the human spirit.

Also, the deep psychological bond that Dagny and Cherryl supposedly share needs fleshing out. Ayn says they were "like sisters" in spirit, but Dagny, resplendent in her virtue and resources, doesn't even reach out to Cherryl in her time of need.

I'm confused about this Eddie Willers character. He's supposed to represent common men who benefit when the strong are allowed to dominate the market. However, he seems like a tool and kind of pathetic, whose considers lifelong obsequious worship of the Taggart clan his life's highest calling. He's proud to be their "servant" and lapdog. If Rand had believed in the admirable capacity for common people to improve their situations through hard work and determination, this is an extremely poor execution of the point.

Hank Rearden is another character many identify with. But for all his noble struggles, he, too is shown to be played out for a fool in the end. He loses the woman he worshipped and admired for so long, first to Francisco and then to the sexually ambiguous, virtually disembodied, spirit guide John Galt. The best he and Francisco could hope for is that when Dagny and Galt had sex, "it would be as they would all three be making love together". This is pretty much Rand's wet dream: steamy group sex with multiple hot men.

Also, I found the scene where Rearden expresses "contempt" for his brother by saying he wouldn't even hire him as a janitor particularly strange. Even if he didn't want to hire his brother himself, couldn't he have at least pointed him in the direction of some other firms that were hiring, or helped edit his resume, and post it on, or...something?

The same can be said about Peter Keating and Catherine Halsey in The Fountainhead. For the most part, real people aren't such spineless suckers who allow their family and friends to treat them badly for so long. And if they were, most normal people already understand that they aren't exactly ideal role models either.

There seem to be three categories of people in Rand's novels, none of them realistic nor particularly relevant. First there are the demi-gods of superior intellect, who do what they want, other people's interests be damned, and who according to her embody the best within us. Then there are the villains who, despite their glaring incompetence and impotence, manage to subjugate and torment the ones of superior capacity (not sure how that really pans out). Everyone else seems to fall into the final category, of people whose main fault is that they do not quite measure up to the premier paragons of virtue (Galt and Dagny in Atlas, Roark and Dominique in Fountainhead). Rand's opinion of them seems to be that they are pretty stupid even if well intentioned, whose main purpose seem to be to worship and hang on to either the heroes or villains. In layman's terms, they are pretty much SUCKERS.

Rand claimed her novels were about celebrating life and happiness, but she actually does an infinitely better job (not to mention also devoting a lot more pages) with her descriptions and indictments of evil. When she tries to describe happiness, love, and the joy of life -- things she knew little about -- she failed miserably.


Moony said...

"This is pretty much Rand's wet dream: steamy group sex with multiple hot men."

And what's wrong with that, I ask?

The real problem with Rand's heroes and heroines is that they don't give the impression that they have a clue how to enjoy themselves. They're even more dreary in their relentless nobility than Tolkien's (and that's really saying something!). I mean you can't imaging going down the pub with them, can you?

If this is the sort of happiness Objectivism leads to then I think I'm better off without it.

Moony said...

Damn! Of course "imaging" should have been "imagine".

Meg's Marginalia said...

I never said there was anything wrong with it; it was supposed to be funny (and of course i fail at trying to be funny) and ironic considering she was pretty uptight about these things.

And I agree with you about Tolkien, I got up to about page 50 of Lord of the Rings and couldn't take it anymore

Meg's Marginalia said...

Also, Greg Nyquist has a chapter on Rand's theory of sex in his ARCHN book that i was thinking of, that she disapproved of affairs, polygamy and casual sex.

Moony said...

"Also, Greg Nyquist has a chapter on Rand's theory of sex in his ARCHN book that i was thinking of, that she disapproved of affairs, polygamy and casual sex."

How on Earth did she square that with bonking the brains out of Branden?

Jay said...

n real life, overcoming an obstacle is never "effortless" and the vast majority of people do not have superhuman levels of intelligence and wealth. She eschews the opportunity to show how battles against obstacles are really fought and won in reality.

What obstacles in Atlas are overcome with superhuman intelligence and wealth?

Rearden's trial? No. All he does there is point out how the entire proceeding depends on his and the public's acceptance of it.

Rearden breaking it off with Lillian? No. He realized they had nothing in common and she was only with him for status.

The success of Rearden Metal in the face of huge public criticism? No. Dagny knew the Metal was good and ignored the ignorance of envious power-lusters.

These obstacles were overcome with thought and will, not superhuman intelligence in any one area.

Meg's Marginalia said...

Nathaniel Branden describes her as a "Russian equivalent of 19th century Victorian" in keeping up appearances, in that she didn't want anyone to know about their affair. She didn't even want to get another apartment so that they could have their trysts uninterrupted because she didn't want anyone seeing her entering another man's apartment alone, etc etc. ARCHN has a whole chapter about Rand's theory of sex and how it's hopelessly female and prudish. When I read it again I'll distill the salient parts for you. My comment about her latent double penetration fantasies might be more funny in that context.

Meg's Marginalia said...

The fact that Rand's heroes are humorless and huge boors and probably a real pain to be around is pretty obvious, and has been mentioned and criticized before. I wanted to highlight other more subtle plot inadequacies.

Jay said...


I wouldn't mind hanging out with Rearden (personal favorite) and Francisco. Galt bores me to tears though. I've always felt that Dagny should've wound up with Francisco.

Meg's Marginalia said...

I don't recall Rearden's trial in Atlas Shrugged, maybe you can refresh my memory.

The whole Rearden Metal thing is quite ludicrous. The whole science of mechanical engineering is dedicated to discovering better materials for various purposes. Why other engineers and the general public would oppose such a polymer just because they didn't like Rearden's personality is unrealistic to the highest degree.

As Shane Gline writes:
Rand also has no idea how to make us believe Roark is much of an artist -- she rhapsodizes endlessly about his work, but doesn't have a clue how to demonstrate that his work is in fact good. She talks her way around the issue and sets up a whole platoon of straw men to either praise or damn his creations depending on where they stand in her (tiny) moral universe. One of the drawbacks of Rand starving her universe of genuine moral complexity is that it makes her characters -- and her universe, for that matter -- flat. No one has any existence in her books except as either a mouthpiece or a manufactured opponent to her outlook. If that was the point, then it was a very ill-chosen point indeed.

Also, battles are not won solely through thought and will. Einstein also said that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Oh I forgot Rand's people don't like Einstein because he believed in God and was a socialist.