Sunday, December 5, 2010

Libertarians V Atlas Shrugged (Part B) 94

Mistakes in Atlas Shrugged

Mistakes are awkward, clumsy, contradictory, unbelievable or poorly thought out devices that reduce the reader's likelihood to suspend his disbelief. The reader should find it easy and plausible to go along with the story; some device that causes the reader to back up and doubt the story itself is a mistake.

The first mistake was fuzzily setting the story in the indefinite near future. It never quite works. H. G. Wells correctly noted that with fantasy fiction, there should be exactly one implausible element or future device (invisibility for a man, a machine that can travel through time, an inaccessible village of blind persons, as examples). Everything else should be as normal and mundane and familiar as possible.

This rotting America after a pinnacle in the mid-1950s just doesn't quite make it as the setting for Atlas Shrugged. Military technology continues to advance, but railroads are moving back toward coal-powered locomotives. Television exists but few are watching it. There's a deep economic reversal but no currency crisis. Farmers can't get crops to market but there is no gasoline shortage. Lillian Reardon is suddenly very poor immediately after her divorce from her husband. John Galt comes out of absolutely nowhere, with no parents and no close relationship with his father, yet he becomes the star science student at Patrick Henry University. Why would an inventor, with a character clearly based on Tesla, become a monastic striker, unless it was a galling, agonizing decision as it was for Francisco? Dagny Taggart has generous but bumbling parents, yet she becomes gracious and wise effortlessly.

There isn't enough character development to the “good” characters. They glide through the plot stone-facedly as if this were a Greek tragedy. This is true for the villains, too, except for Jim Taggart. He's a spoiled brat who gets worse and worse, crueler and crueler, as time goes by – which is good writing. The other villians are offensively cardboardy. Dr. Blodgtt, Orren Boyle, Kip Chalmers, Emma Chalmers (“Kip's Ma”), Balph Eubank, Lee Hunsacker, Paul Larkin, Mort Liddy, Clifton Locey, Cuffy Meigs, Chick Morrison, Horace Bussby Mowen, Ben Nealy, Betty Pope, Bertram Scudder, Claude Slagenhop, Gerald and Ivy Starnes, Lester Tuck, and Clem Weatherby are the bad guys. Can't you tell by the names? Many readers are insulted and belittled by this clumsy device.

That's the problem, the reader is encouraged to snap judge the characters by an easy code. Good fiction isn't written like that; it should be hard to tell who is good and who is bad until the climax of the plot. Rand was a great admirer of Victor Hugo, but she should have paid a lot of attention to a contemporary, Alexander Dumas, particularly his Man in the Iron Mask. That work had the three musketeers (instead of John Galt, Frisco d'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjold). But it is excruciatingly hard to determine who is going to do the noble thing until the occasion arises – and that's how it should be. Except for Frisco and Jim Taggart, the characters aren't complicated enough to carry the plot and the message.

There is a jarring inconsistency about Galt Gulch, the book's utopia. The United States was constructed as an anti-utopia, a nation where it would be impossibly difficult to gain enough power to direct the nation and its government too far in any ideological direction (through separation of power and the Bill of Rights). The book's setting of a nation sinking into central control and statism, from which it is going to be saved by a band of humane capitalists living in a utopia, just doesn't quite wash. Is capitalism a utopia or not? It came about on its own as the efficient system of a freedom-maximizing anti-utopia. Additionally, the clever escapees in Galt's Gulch are quite adaptable and independent, they don't seem to need a loose community of such camaraderie. The Gulch lacks necessity and therefore plausibility. It weakens Galt's speech at the end of the book. And Galt already has credibility problems: why should the greatest engineer of the age also be the greatest geopolitical philosopher? And why should Dagny Taggart, who has had the faithful love of Frisco all her adult life, jump ship to another man, especially this one whom she doesn't really know?

The only answer that makes any sense is that “limerence is king.” Immediate love at first sight is not only proper, it is the only true love and it is always right. It's infallible, especially if you think logically and live a rational life. Rand calls this “direct perception.” I would call it miraculous, although “puppy love” also fits love at first sight.

Next post: Fatal Errors in Atlas Shrugged

1 comment:

  1. "And why should Dagny Taggart, who has had the faithful love of Frisco all her adult life, jump ship to another man, especially this one whom she doesn't really know?"

    I know someone who did that in real life--old whatsername starts with an M. so it's not so unbelievable to me. though i haven't read the book.

    also Dickens names his characters telegraphically, especially his villains--Mr. Bumble? Ebenezer Scrooge? Of course his character development is usually exceptional. and occasionally they change, like Scrooge who goes through catharsis after his trip to Hell.

    BTW, the 1970 musical version of that with Albert Finney is top notch.