17 September 2006

We the Living, Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's books are generally triumphant celebrations of the endurance of the human spirit winning out over the soul-crushing stupidity of the masses and their evil governments. Not this one. In an interesting twist, this time, the soul-crushing system wins. It's pretty effin' grim. It's also not a particularly compelling read. The characters are less interesting, so you just don't care about them as much. Furthermore, they're in a position that is basically untenable (which I guess is the point of the book, the evil of a system that cramps the style of these marvelous people), but instead of sympathizing, I found myself getting somewhat annoyed. If they're so great, why can't they pull their shit together and adapt? Maybe their much vaunted principles aren't so grand after all?

As I reported in my post on The Fountainhead, love is a thornier issue in this book. As in Atlas Shrugged, you have a woman choosing between two men. But in this case, she seems to be making the wrong choice. Leo, originally a total swoon, becomes a bit of a prick fairly early on. You start to wonder why she's sticking around rather than ditching him and installing herself permanently with Andrei, who despite his Party affiliations, is a total rockstar. The explanation is that Kira loves Leo, but it's not entirely convincing. In fact, it seems rather at odds with the rest of her character - how could she continue to love a man who wasn't even worthy of her respect?

I've been reading Bakhtin lately, and it's led me to note an interesting feature of Rand's writing, namely, that her characters are fairly standard epic heroes. This isn't just to say that they're great people; rather, it's that they have no internal/external divide. They're all surface. There's no introspection, no psychological investigation. It's odd, and seems counterintuitive, because they tend to be so mysterious to other people, but as far as the reader is concerned, they're basically a walking set of principles. They function like parts of an equation, as do, in fact, all the characters in her books. There are no real surprises. The text is basically her setting up these various perspectives and then sort of bumping them into each other and working out what happens. Which is pretty much how epics work - it's not a process of working out ideas, coming to conclusions - it's just an illustration. Everything is known in advance.

Ultimately, the question for me is why are Atlas and The Fountainhead so great, when her other books are such garbage? I used to approach it looking for the fault of the other texts, but I think the answer could more fruitfully be sought from the other end, trying to figure out why the good ones actually work...

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