by Abbas A
At the turn of the millennium, Modern Library, a division of Random House, produced a list of what it considered the best 100 novels of the 20th century. They actually compiled two lists, one voted on by critics, the other by readers. The critics’ list, helmed by Ulysses, read like the syllabus of an amazing literature course. The reader’s list included
many of the same books, though the top ten was dominated by the works of L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand.
It beggars belief that people actually like those two authors, or take their work seriously enough to vote them among the best novels of the 20th century. My bias is slanted toward more “serious” works (though producing a list of the best books is fairly stupid. It’s not a championship. It’s art). And since I’ve never actually read a L. Ron Hubbard book, or know anyone who has read one of his books, I’ll abstain from commenting, though I’m sure this is further evidence of some vast Scientology conspiracy.
What’s most interesting to me about such lists is the position of Ayn Rand’s novels. There are four in the top ten, all ahead of works like Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, and Catch-22. Why are Rand’s novels so immensely popular? I’ve read them (Atlas Shrugged twice, unfortunately) hoping to discover something interesting. What I’ve found are militant and cartoonish characters who have no redeeming qualities.
Furthermore, I’ve never met anyone (in person) who claimed Atlas Shrugged (or any of Rand’s work) was their favorite. I don’t even know if these people exist, and if they do, the fact they like this book is a good sign that I should stay far away from them.
At the most basic level, I just don’t feel that the critiques Rand lays out are accurate. Though Atlas Shrugged is a dystopia, it seems closer to The Turner Diaries than it does to 1984. The world which she paints is nothing that resembles reality. It’s amazing to me that she has actually influenced real people, like Alan Greenspan, with her myopic philosophy. I can’t extend my critique any further, because that would mean that I would have to find a copy of the book, and read through longuer after longuer to filter the appropriate examples that would solidify my point. The book really seems like a children’s book for insecure conservatives who are desperate to see themselves in art, and not be seen as the enemy (even that oppression is mostly imagined). The novel’s points are black and white, simplistic; worst of all, the form of the novel becomes a propaganda tool for philosophy, without any of the rigor required of philosophical texts.
It also amazes me that the left doesn’t have its own answer to Atlas Shrugged. I propose that we elevate a book written nearly 50 years before Rand’s as just such a book. That book is Jack London’s The Iron Heel. The book documents an oppressive oligarchy that has come to dominate America, as well as the brutal revolution that occurs in response to the oligarchy’s tyranny. The novel features the ridiculously named Ernest Everhard as its superman protagonist, whose wit and physique are only matched by his charm and hatred of capitalism. The novel is narrated by his wife, Avis Everhard, who details the exploits of her husband as he stands against the Oligarchs and tries to lead a revolution against them. All of this is framed by Anthony Meredith, a far future historian who discovered the “Everhard” manuscript and subsequently annotated it.
The book is the diametrical opposite of all of Rand’s work, as it is overtly communist, Rand’s capitalist. Maybe this distinction explains the popularity of Rand’s work, as in many ways the surfeit prose is a parade of capitalist excess. This does not mean that London’s work is without its own diatribes, which at one point are chapter-length. Yet both books make little attempt at subtlety, which is why they are bad novels.
The Iron Heel reads in parts like a typical London adventure story, except that Meredith, the historian who finds the lost manuscript of the Everhard’s, spoils the whole plot when he reveals in the introduction that Avis and Ernest died in pursuit of their cause. The novel, after that point, becomes a propaganda piece for communism. And that is what I find so abhorrent about Rand’s work is that it is simply a vehicle of propaganda. At no point does it approach art, or even entertainment.
There is no doubt that The Iron Heel is a terrible book, though it is significantly better than Atlas Shrugged, primarily because it is significantly shorter. Why the left hasn’t used the book to counter Rand’s stupidity is perhaps testament to their good taste.