During the move from the Mountain West to the Mid-Atlantic, 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 thin 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. 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, Dagny 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 Dagny 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.