We finally did it . . . Wit Memo read “Atlas Shrugged.”   Why now?   It was on our bookshelf, we
long ago swore we would, and it seemed like the right time, what with that movie finally coming out
this week and recent renewed talk of “going Galt.”  

And now we know the truth about “Atlas Shrugged.”

If you’ve read “Atlas Shrugged” - actually read it - then you know that the writing is atrocious, and
that this is a fact not subject to debate.

Do not attempt to excuse the undeniable atrociousness of the writing in “Atlas Shrugged” on
account of Ayn Rand having been Russian, as did that man on the Metro who saw Wit Memo
reading “Atlas Shrugged” on the way home from the day job we've been repeatedly advised not to
quit.  A Russian writing in English, he said.  
Quick answer:  so was Nabokov.  

He was positively giddy to find a potential fellow traveler, that man on the Metro, and even admitted
having read “Atlas Shrugged” six times.  (Or was it eight?  So what!  Who cares!)  But, when we
told him to his face that the writing is atrocious, he didn't deny it.  He couldn't, because it is a fact
not subject to debate.

A grim dystopian fantasy devoid of intentional humor, “Atlas Shrugged” is constantly hawked
as a parable for our times, our times being first the mid 20th century, then the late 20th century,
and now the early 21st century.  It isn’t, of course, and it can’t be, because it’s too horribly written
to sell the author’s big ideas.  For starters, the prose is hyperbolic and over the top, the characters
are ridiculous, the dialogue hokey, and the author resorts to interminable speeches to make her
points because she can’t do it believably in a story, and, ultimately, ends up revealing a lot about
her insecurities over her artistic worth.  And in places, it's just plain silly.

Not that Ayn Rand didn’t have her good points, let’s get that out of the way right up front.  She had
an admirable sense of style - the cigarette holder, the angular couture, the sleek modern
architecture.  Then there’s her profound, aggressive atheism, something Wit Memo’s heard
nothing about when we’ve heard about Ayn Rand.  (Wit Memo bets dollars to donuts that the
movie version of John Galt won’t say much in his big speech about the “mystics of the spirit.”)  And
some of her ideas about the beauty of rational thought and the creation of wealth do seem to
close in on some great truths, in an intuitively obvious, hypothetical sort of way.  It’s only when you
try to envision a world according to Ayn that your head starts to hurt, as you wonder if it mean no
public schools, or whether your sole avenue of redress when an agri-behemoth recklessly poisons
your toddler with a factory farmed, salmonella-ridden egg should be to take your business
elsewhere next time.  But it’s when she moves on to painting altruism as an absolute evil and
attempts to apply her theories to love and sex that the John Galt express really runs off the rails.

“Atlas Shrugged” is such a whirling merry-go-round of awfulness that it’s difficult to find a starting
point to grab onto, so we might as well begin with the Bad Guys, the villains.  Selling Big Ideas in a
work of fiction requires credible antagonists to be vanquished by heroes exemplifying the Big
Ideas, and the antagonists in “Atlas Shrugged” don’t sell because they’re simply not credible.  
Comprising high government officials, failed industrialists, a few power-hungry scientists and pre-
pomo artists, all leagued in a sinister plot to plunder and extirpate the few productive individuals
left in the country, the bad guys in “Atlas Shrugged” are all carboard monsters and absurd straw
men with stupid giveaway names.  While the heroes have fine strong names that ring like rivets in
a rising skyscraper (John Galt, Hank Reardon, Midas Mulligan) the bad guys are saddled with
billboards advertising their monumentally bad character, like
Balph Eubank (no, not “Ralph”), Cuffy
Meigs, Kip Chalmers, and everyone’s favorite, Wesley Mouch – now
there’s a flabby handle that
sloshes unctuously in the mouth like a bad oyster.  And what’s with Lee Hunsaker?  As long as you're
eschewing any pretense of subtlety, why not just call him Hun
sacker and be done with it?.  (If
nothing else, “Atlas Shrugged” is a mother lode of aliases:  if you run across comments by “Balph
Hunsaker,” you’ll know Wit Memo’s stopped by.)  

The bad guys all speak in voices that are utterly indistinguishable.  Unlike the heroes who deliver
unbroken oratories, the villains stammer, wheedle, sputter and whine in herky-jerky duplicitous
bursts, blustering their way through colloquies and interrogations that sound nothing like actual
conversations, behind which you can feel the hack on a deadline laboring to replicate actual
conversations.  Not that dialogue must be realistic to enthrall – the windy emotional analyses in Iris
Murdoch’s “A Severed Head” are so delectable precisely
because they don’t sound like real
people talking, but Ayn lacked the writerly chops to pull it off, and it shows.  And because she’s
doubled down on altruism as a principal evil, her villains can’t merely be possessed of an
erroneous but heartfelt view of the role of government in a representative republic with a market-
based economy, they must be genuinely and wholly evil.  We’re talking mad scientists with torture
machines and death rays to subdue a restless citizenry, and murderous popinjays in the self-
designed military uniforms of third-world tinhorn tyrants.  Snidely Whiplashes twirling the tips of oily
mustaches, but without any of Snidely’s panache, they’re physically ugly as well (“shapeless
mouth”).  As credible spokesmen for the views they purport to represent they fail utterly.  It doesn’t
help that they’re made to spout nonsense … where are the actual scientists insisting that rational
thought has no place in science and must be discarded as a relic of a superstitious past, like the
ones in “Atlas Shrugged?”  Does believing that men might not always be rational impel one to insist
that men are
never rational?  Has “the purpose of every creed that preached self-sacrifice” really
been “the despoiling of ability?”  This collection of louts doesn’t make that case.

And here Subway Boy might have had a point about Ayn Rand being Russian, since she’s
obviously been molded by Stalinist absurdities.  But her bad guys aren't content with just that “from
each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” commie chestnut spouted by the
incompetent heir/owner of the failing factory John Galt quits in disgust.  Instead, it’s more along the
lines of “from the productive, capable few according to the outermost limit of their abilities, by
gunpoint if necessary, and to everyone else according to their greed and in inverse proportion to
their worth.”  It’s as if the Wesley Mouches and Cuffy Meigses are moved by jealousy most of all,
and view the brains, character and work ethic of men like Hank Reardon and John Galt as unfair
advantages, the use of which is a form of cheating for which the cheaters must be severely and
unrelentingly punished.  For proof of the looniness of that notion, look no further than its adoption
by US Representative Michele Bachmann, who on March 31, 2011 claimed that the President of
the United States is "
angry and irritable and sarcastic about people who have succeeded in the
United States and job creators,” the “two sectors that he most wants to punish."  She said this
about a month after the President named to head his Economic Recovery Board the chairman of
General Electric, which in 2010 earned $14 billion in profits and paid no corporate taxes, and the
same day on which she
posed for a photograph next to a sign that read “Somewhere in Kenya a
Village is missing an
IDIOT."  Only characters drawn to extremes could be drawn to such extreme
characters.  If you’re the sort of person who believes in black helicopters, in government-
engineered tornadoes dispatched to destroy the nation’s food producers, in UN troops poised to
storm across the borders to impose One World Government, or, like Rep. Bachmann, in FEMA
reeducation camps, then these villains might seem plausible.  For the rest of us, not so much.  

The good guys supply their share of yuks.  First up, John Galt, the hero, the mystery name on the
lips of the nation, the man who “stopped the motor of the world” and drew the few productive men
of worth to a laissez-faire biodome in a Colorado canyon.  (That’s another of the strange
contrivances of “Atlas Shrugged”- in all the country there’s just
one man who can make cars, one
who can make steel,
one honest judge, etc. etc.)  Like the rest of the good guys John Galt is as
handsome as the bad guys are ugly, but with a delicacy of feature the other heroes lack – no
wonder Hank Reardon ends up with a major crush on him.  

John Galt’s most impressive feat isn’t that he stopped the motor of the world, it’s that he stopped
the motor of the world in his
spare time, during his month-long annual leave from his job as a
railroad laborer in Taggart Terminal.  Say, since when did railroad laborers get month-long
vacations?  As Daffy Duck once declared (really), “
strong union!”  Not only did America’s unions
“bring you the five-day work week,” they gave John Galt the freedom to build his Gulch in the
bargain.  John Galt is an inspiration and mocking rebuke to every wannabe author convinced that
his day job is the only thing between him and that Great Novel inside him.   

Another hero with a second career is Ragnar Danneskjold, the pirate.  A dashing Viking of a pirate
who sinks freighters and shells coastal factories without harming a soul, just the way The Phantom
unerringly shot guns from the hands of roughnecks ... in the funny pages.  A pirate who enforces a
Robin Hood morality but vehemently despises Robin Hood, Ragnar Danneskjold is also one whiz of
a tax accountant or CPA or
something, ‘cause in between swashing buckles he finds time to audit
the tax records of each productive individualist John Galt might want in his gulch, calculate the
excess of their taxes over the sum reasonably necessary to support the few legitimate functions for
which a government may impose taxes (presumably stuff like the criminal justice system and some
form of military defense, and whatever else objectivists deem Kosher), and escrow that amount in
pirate’s booty in the Galt’s Gulch branch of Midas Mulligan’s bank.

One’s fondness for the dashing Francisco D’Anconia ebbs considerably upon learning he’s never
touched any of the gorgeous starlets and bimbos always on his arm, not a one.  Never laid a glove
on ‘em.  You can’t forgive him for having to explain, in the book’s secondary monologue, the
application of Ayn Randism to the realm of love.  To try to force, into the square hole where altruism
is evil and the worst sin you can commit is to live your life “for the sake of another man,” the tender
round peg of love, about which experts like NRBQ have determined, “When you give it away/You
wind up havin' more.”  Let’s check back with John and Dagny Galt after they've got a coupla
babies and ask, hey, how’s that never-live-your-lifey-for-the-sake-of-another-personny thing
workin’ out for ya now?  And when it comes to just plain sex, “Atlas Shrugged” again comes off as
incredibly dated, with Dagny Taggart pitched as bold and heroic for wanting sex and for accepting
that she wants it, something that Ayn without offer of proof would have you believe was not
tolerated in women of good moral character.  And even still, Dagny - and Francisco and Hank and
John - are, for all their free-thinking spiritedness, so repressed they can never acknowledge
Wanting It up until the moment he’s tearing off her clothes and she’s pretending not to help.  All
the sex scenes come off as a little bit creepy, and not just the only one intended to, the sordid
coupling of James Taggart and Hank Reardon’s wife.

But the most unsettling character good or bad in “Atlas Shrugged” is Richard Halley, the hero
composer whose music is playing when we first meet Dagny and who’s there on the book’s last
page.  Richard Halley struggled in obscurity for years, his devotion to grand, swelling compositions
in the classical style earning him scorn and ridicule from a jaded public hungry for the latest atonal
pap.  (
Modern architecture good, modern music bad.)   When after years of rejection his genius is
finally recognized in a triumphant concert, Richard Halley drops out, incandescent with rage, at the
precise moment of his triumph.  He becomes incandescent with rage again as he recounts all this
to Dagny in Galt’s Gulch.  As you read his outburst you fear for Dagny’s safety more than you did
when she crashed the airplane she stole.

It’s through Richard Halley, and her rendering of other artists, that Ayn Rand reveals the most
about herself.  In reading the following two passages, keep in mind that according to a November
2009 NYer article, Ayn Rand was personally devastated by poor reviews and never quite made it
as a screenwriter, her initial dream.  First, right before the Comet train explodes in Taggart Tunnel,
Ayn presents a roster of the doomed Looters occupying the train’s sleeper compartments, making
clear through hokey, bilious descriptions that they well deserve their imminent, fiery deaths.  She
saves her most curious choler for a playwright, at page 567 of the 1084-page paperback:

    The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling, little neurotic who wrote cheap little
    plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect
    that all businessmen were scoundrels.

Jump from there right to Richard Halley’s rant against a certain type of artist, at page 728:

    This, Miss Taggart, this sort of spirit, courage and love for truth --- as against a sloppy bum
    who goes around proudly assuring you that he has almost reached the perfection of a
    lunatic, because he's an artist who hasn’t the faintest idea what his art work is or means, he's
    not restrained by such crude concepts as ‘being’ or ‘meaning,’ he’s the vehicle of higher
    mysteries, he doesn’t know how he created his work or why, it just came out of him
    spontaneously, like vomit out of a drunkard, he did not think, he wouldn’t stoop to thinking,
    he just felt it, all he has to do is feel---he feels, the flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed,
    drooling, shivering, uncongealed bastard!

Wit Memo likes to think of that “flabby, loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering,
uncongealed bastard!” part as the icing on a deliciously diagnostic cake.  

And the heroes, for all their rugged individualism, come off like Soviet automatons.  The most
chilling scene in the book is Dagny’s big dinner at Midas Mulligan’s home with the luminaries of
Galt’s Gulch, the titans of industry whom Dagny has despairingly seen vanish from society over the
previous 700 pages.  The way each in his turn recounts his decision to Go Galt, culminating in
identical monotone proclamations along the lines of, “Yes, Miss Taggart, working here in my
laboratory in Galt’s Gulch, I’ve developed a cure for cancer.  No, ma’am, no one in the outside
world will ever hear of it” --  recalls the pod people from “Body Snatchers,” or some kind of North
Korean show trial where one official after another declares both his guilt and his love for the great
leader.

Other examples of atrocious writing abound, but here’s one more:  Ayn tries out that hear-only-one-
side-of-the-conversation gimmick, when Dagny’s guy Friday, Eddie Willers, periodically opens up
to a unidentified railroad laborer –wonder who he turns out to be? – over cups of coffee in the
employees’ cafeteria.  Let’s just say that Eddie Willers is no Bob Newhart or Shelley Berman.

And finally, there’s John Galt’s Big Speech, which makes the writing atrocious by definition, since it
proves the author can’t make her points dramatically with
believable characters and dialogue and
has to resort to explaining herself with a two-hour-plus hectoring lecture.  As much a crutch as
narration in movies (narration makes "Vicki Christina Barcelona" feel at times like an episode of
"Sex and the City"), it’s also a form of cheating, like the lazy elementary school student who tries to
fulfill an assignment to use a list of words in a story with a story about a spelling test.

It's cocaine writing, that and the other speeches, the way she grabs hold of a turn of phrase and
beats you over the head with it for paragraphs and pages – mystics of muscle, mystics of the spirit,
looters, “the zero” -- it’s like getting Cornered at a Party by a drunk who’s just done a few lines and
can’t get enough of his own brilliant ideas.  And it really was cocaine writing, sort of – that 2009
NYer article reported she finished the thing on speed.  Not that repetition is necessarily bad –
to see it used masterfully to weave a compelling cadence, try Thomas Bernhard's “
Woodcutters.”  

Face it:  speeches that long are a sign of megalomania, the stuff of Castro and Chavez.

That speech makes any film version of “Atlas Shrugged” problematic.  How much of a two hour+
lecture can a
movie audience be expected to sit through?  Consider that the great film speeches –
Michael Rennie in “Day the Earth Stood Still,” Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glenn Ross,” Peter Finch
in “Network,” Divine and Danny Mills’s professions of devotion in “Pink Flamingos” – are scant
minutes.  We’re curious to read or hear how the producers of the new flick handle this dilemma.  
Obviously they’ll have to scrap most of it, starting, we bet, with the religion-bashing.  We envision a
stirring montage of desperate folk in all parts of the country looking up transfixed from arduous
labors or shameful carousals as choice snippets blare on radios, a sequence of no more than one
or two minutes, during which appears the crawl, “To see John Galt’s speech in its entirety, please
visit AtlasShruggedTheMovie.com,” followed by the release of an unabridged “Author’s Cut” on
Blueray for the truly masochistic.

And you
know that regardless of how much of that speech they cut or keep, nothing in it will stick in
the public’s mind the way Gordon Gekko's “greed is good” from "Wall Street" did five million years
ago.

The only hope of keeping the thing from being another “Battlefield Earth” is to concentrate on the
action sequences, of which there are many, and cut the original prose to the bone, sparing only a
few choice phrases as a sop to the Aynally retentive.

But, still, despite being atrociously written, “Atlas Shrugged” has indeed affected Wit Memo, and
changed the way we view the world.  F’rinstance, consider one of our toddler’s library books, “
La
Cucarachita Martina,” a traditional Central American tale about a series of unusual events that
ensue upon a lady cockroach’s expenditure of a coin (“una moneda”) she discovers in the dirt in
front of her house.  Whereas I’d previously enjoyed this kiddie book, I now find it problematic in
light of my new post-Atlas Shrugged awareness.  That Cucarachita Martina, she really didn’t
earn
that coin that must surely be someone else’s property, now did she?  We don’t want our kid
growing up with the idea that you can
obtain something for nothing, that mere luck and
happenstance should entitle you to deprive another of the fruits of his labors.  
Back to the library
for you, Senorita Martina!

To repay that debt of gratitude, Wit Memo will be purchasing a subscription to “The Objectivist
Newsletter,” using the pre-paid no-zip-code postcard found between pages 544 and 545 of our
early 60’s paperpack edition of “Atlas Shrugged.”  At five bucks for a whole year, it has to be a
bargain.

Coming soon:  Atlas Shrugged - A Dramatization in 5 Minutes -and- Blogging Atlas Shrugged:
one blog entry per page



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The Emperor Has No Prose

Wit Memo reviews "Atlas Shrugged"
The Witzelsucht Memorandum