Food for Thought is an ongoing series of posts that will react to the book earnestly, foregoing the snark of the chapter summaries. Since this is posting alongside the first of those summaries, consider it an aperitif. We’ll start light and wade into the novel’s heavier issues as the story develops.
One of the distinctive features of doing this as a weekly blog is the serialization of the narrative over many months. And with thirty chapters it wouldn’t be that hard to reconfigure the book into 10 episodes of TV (as opposed to, say, a half-baked feature film trilogy) much like the Game of Thrones adaptation.
So to tease some of the book’s conceptual potency for the skeptics, I’m going to quickly stack Atlas up against three television serials whose excellence is widely agreed upon.
LOST — Okay, I know the overall quality of Lost is still disputed by those who don’t like the ending, but in some ways that makes it all the more apt a comparison. And besides that, don’t listen to the haters — Lost hit way too many home runs to be cast away for pulling a Casey at the Bat in the bottom of the ninth. In fact, I dropped a Lost reference in the very first paragraph of the recaps, comparing John Galt to Jacob, the God-like figure of The Others’ mysterious religion.
Like Jacob, Galt is a hands-off puppetmaster who hovers ominously over the lives of all the other characters. And to take it even further, Galt’s various undercover agents (keep an eye out for them in the recaps) are exactly like the vast network of Others embedded in the off-Island world, withholding information about Galt/Jacob’s secret realm and protecting that realm while simultaneously recruiting potential candidates to go there.
MAD MEN — This is probably the most obvious point of comparison, since characters on Mad Men have specifically cited Atlas Shrugged and even told Don Draper he is a Randian Übermensch. Also, both works fetishize the aesthetics of an earlier America.
But in a broader sense the two are alike in observing a world on the brink of immense change and upheaval, evaluating the people in that world by whether they live by values that will thrive in the future or get mired in ways of thinking that are doomed to the dustbin of history.
The vital distinction between these visions is that Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner has humanistic empathy for his characters, who, much like real people, struggle to be true to their best selves, to even know themselves at all (and this is the existential condition portrayed by Lost too).
In Atlas Shrugged however, Ayn Rand sketches only Manichean avatars of flawless valor or abject cowardice. Opportunities for nuance and depth are there in many places, but Rand lets them pass her by out of some bizarre disdain for human feelings. Whenever the novel’s heroes experience emotions, they refuse to express them, or are uncomfortable having them, all while the narrator insists they aren’t actually feeling anything at all, and certainly not the emotions said narrator is describing at length. It robs the piece of artistry, and it’s a self-inflicted wound. As Scott Tobias puts it in his AV Club review of the derided Atlas film, “Its ideas are squandered by aesthetics.”
THE WIRE — Often called the Best. Show. Ever. by its fans, The Wire focuses on a world sliding inevitably down a slope of corruption and decay where redemption is only available on an individual level and institutional reform is hopeless. So the Randverse, basically. But The Wire prizes realism and appeals to many people whose politics are far to the right of David Simon’s, whereas Rand venerates her ideals alone and regards other worldviews with contempt, leaving only her ideological cohorts to support her work (excepting yours truly).
The Wire‘s ideas are enhanced by its aesthetics because it pays enormous attention to the complicating details of life, and because it treats all of its characters as distinct individuals, just ones who can never truly escape society’s tangled web of irreconcilable incentives. Not even radical individualists like Omar Little are islands unto themselves. The game is the game, always.
So in The Wire, while some in power are corrupt and some aren’t, all powerful people are inevitably led by their rational self-interest to make decisions which harm other members of society in ways nobody could have anticipated and which only the viewing audience has all the necessary perspectives to appreciate. The end result is that even though The Wire and Atlas share a bird’s eye vision of society, The Wire‘s eyesight approaches a keen 20/20 while Atlas’ is woefully myopic.
But obviously I think the book is still worth something or this blog wouldn’t exist. I just think its primary virtue is vast unfulfilled potential. And the only way to tap that potential is to discard Rand’s moral absolutism and focus on the complicating details that she tries so hard to abolish. Doing that is ultimately what this blog is for.
Basically, just imagine that Atlas was adapted into a one-and-done season of TV, reworked as progressive tragedy, produced by David Simon, shot by the Mad Men team, and working from a script by Damon Lindelof (with George Pelecanos ghostwriting the climax). Considered from the right perspective, it’s a story that could blow your goddamn mind.