Atlas starts with what is probably the single most appropriete phrase possible for this book.
Gee I hope you like that stupid, stupid sentence. You know how about three, four years ago, Drake did that song "Motto"? You Only Live Once? YOLO? And how EVERY SINGLE FUCKING PERSON ON PLANET EARTH was doing "YOLO" for the longest time? And how every single rapper in existence tried to cash in on this by coming up with their own YOLO? Only it worked exactly the way bricks fly and most of the rappers just sounded really, really stupid? Yeah. That's what this phrase is. It's Rand's attempt to come up with a meme. And really, it's cool that she put a meme into her novel way back in 57, when memes were not a thing. It is. She was kinda ahead of her time there.
“Who is John Galt?”
THAT SAID. The thing about memes? Something about them is catchy. Rick-rolling, the V for Vendetta mask, the Badger Song, Troll Face, YOLO--there's something about them that makes it easy for them to catch on. Easy to say, easy to remember. Something in them is either ear-worm material--Badgerbadgerbadgerbadger--OR, more frequently, it's a single, powerful image that sticks in your head so hard even an Exorcist couldn't get it out. The Guy Fawkes mask is Anonymous symbol because it's easy, it's catchy, its' somewhat intimidating, and it's powerful because of what Anon attached to it.
Now. Does ANY of that apply to that stupid sentence up there? "Who is John Galt?" sounds more like the speaker is clearing their throat. GALT. Oh, I'm sorry, let me pass you the cough medicine. This would not be a big deal if the ENTIRE FUCKING GODDAMN NOVEL did not hang on this one fucking, stupid sentence.
Anyway, the speaker is a bum, speaking to Eddie Willers. We know nothing about Eddie, right now, except that he gets accosted by bums and has "causeless uneasiness" within him. Eddie asks the bum what he means. The conversation that follows is kinda precious:
“Why does it bother you?” he asked.
“It doesn’t,” snapped Eddie Willers.It doesn't bother Eddie SO MUCH that Eddie gasp GIVES THE BUM MONEY. Because this is a big, sacrificial gesture, apparently. Then Eddie walks off and starts thinking about how much he...doesn't feel anything about his life and is really apathetic, and how very much this bothers him.
It’s the twilight, he thought; I hate the twilight.So do I, Eds. So do I.
It was the calendar that the mayor of New York had erected last year on the top of a building, so that citizens might tell the day of the month as they told the hours of the day, by glancing up at a public tower. A white rectangle hung over the city, imparting the date to the men in the streets below. In the rusty light of this evening’s sunset, the rectangle said: September 2.WOW WHAT A TECHNOLOGICAL MARVEL.
Eddie is scared of the calendar. So scared that it makes him think of an oak tree.
No. I don't know either.
Eventually he makes it to Taggart Transcontinental, his place of employment as...it is never exactly clear what Eddie does, and the movies are even less clear. He does something for the President and Vice President of Operations at TT, which appears to be relaying bad news, staring in horror at various things, and blabbing company secrets to a mysterious stranger every three or four chapters. His title might get mentioned eventually, but it's really, REALLY unimportant. Eds here is basically a plot vehicle--he's there to make sure that characters have the information they need when there's no other possible way for them to know shit. He's basically Rand's Deus ex Machina on a stick.
He goes into James Taggart's office. This is Rand's subtle description of Taggart:
He had a small, petulant mouth, and thin hair clinging to a bald forehead. His posture had a limp, decentralized sloppiness, as if in defiance of his tall, slender body, a body with an elegance of line intended for the confident poise of an aristocrat, but transformed into the gawkiness of a lout. The flesh of his face was pale and soft. His eyes were pale and veiled, with a glance that moved slowly, never quite stopping, gliding off and past things in eternal resentment of their existence.
Yeah. Rand makes the standard ableism of your average romance novel look fucking tame by comparison. The good guys are GORGEOUS, intelligent, physically fit, energetic and otherwise fucking perfect. The bad guys are short, fat, balding, homely, ect. ect. and so forth. Basically, if somebody is pretty, they're gonna be a good guy. If somebody has even one single negative physical quality, they're fucking evil and will burn in Communist Hell.
James greets Eddie with the following:
“Don’t bother me, don’t bother me, don’t bother me,” said James Taggart.
DUDE. YOU ARE THE MOTHERFUCKING PRESIDENT OF THE MOTHERFUCKING RAILROAD WHAT THE HELL.
I am not even three pages in. HELP ME.
Eds tells James that they've had a wreck on the Rio Norte Line. James replies that wrecks happen every day, this is nothing new. Points get battered back and forth until we finally understand what's going on. The Rio Norte line needs new track. James ordered the new track from his buddy Orran Boyle, who is about as reliable as a Ford Pinto when it comes to delivering orders on time. Or at all.
Eddie points out that they are losing money. James says "Yeah, but we're not the only ones" because OF COURSE that's how a President would talk. Eddie says they need to fix shit on that line before they lose all their customers and James replies with what is possibly one of the strangest non-sequiters I've read in a while"
“You’re a pessimist, Eddie. You lack faith. That’s what undermines the morale of an organization.”
Uh...that is not how faith works. Or business. Or...anything, really.
Eddies tells James they need to order from a different supplier. They dance around the issue for a minute before finally revealing that the dreaded other supplier is Rearden Steel, who is...a competitor of Orran Boyle, who is James's good friend, and therefore the order can't be placed and basically all I'm hearing is a couple of puppies whining at each other. Basically, this only exists to make sure we know the following:
1. Taggart Transcontinental is in trouble
2. Rearden Steel is a really cool company
3. Orran Boyle is not a cool company.
4. The Phoenix Durango line is also real cool--cooler than TT anyway.
6. James is frighteningly dependent on his sister.
You know, I get that Rand is trying to make a point that James isn't suitable for leading a company, at all, ever, and that the only reason he's got one is (SPOILERS REDACTED) but for the love of fucking God. I wouldn't trust James with a company. I wouldn't trust this idiot with a potato gun. Afterwards the dude in the desk outside James's office goes on a long rant ending with "Who is John Galt?"
Damn is that going to get old.
We switch scenes and have an unnamed woman who is so awesome that her leg--not her body, mind, just her leg--gets a whole fucking paragraph.
Her leg, sculptured by the tight sheen of the stocking, its long line running straight, over an arched instep, to the tip of a foot in a high-heeled pump, had a feminine elegance that seemed out of place in the dusty train car and oddly incongruous with the rest of her.
We then get a description that includes her coat collar, her hat brim, her face and her posture.
This is Dagny, though she isn't named for a couple more pages, and she's listening to gorgeous, spiraling, triumphant music...that is being whistled by a random dude outside her door.
Hey. When was the last time you found random whistling to be inspiring and transcendent?
She intuits by how AWESOME this whistling is that the song is by a composer named Richard Halley, who wrote a bunch of other things that were cool but really depressing-- and was apparently really obsessed with how nobody REALLY APPRECIATED HIS MUSIC. Note: We still don't have Dagny's name at this point, but we do have the name of some unknown random dude who plays the piano. Also:
She thought dimly that there had been premonitory echoes of this theme in all of Richard Halley’s work, through all the years of his long struggle, to the day, in his middle-age, when fame struck him suddenly and knocked him out.Fame is a random bus, my lovelies. Be advised.
One thing I noticed is that a running theme for this book is an utter lack of appreciation for shit like musicians and writers who are the Best Things In the Universe. Having spent several years writing books that nobody reads, and having read this book more than once? Yeah, I think Rand had issues.
She gives the whistler the ninth degree and is told that it's Halley's Fifth Concerto. Which is weird, 'cause he only wrote four...and the kid bolts as soon and as fast as he can, and we're supposed to just file this away for a later payoff because FREE MARKET CAPITALISM.
The train stops, and she steps off to question the staff as to why, and they just bullshit her until she reveals that she is Dagny Taggart, their boss's boss's boss.
So...these guys didn't know she was on the train? She's riding in her private car, which is noticeably different from the rest of the train, and they didn't notice? Nobody in the office called down and said "UH GUYS WE NEED TO BE CAREFUL BECAUSE MS. TAGGART IS ON BOARD TONIGHT"? NOBODY told the engineer that he had the fucking VICE PRESIDENT OF HIS FUCKING RAILROAD on board tonight? REALLY?
Again, I get that we're actually trying to have incompetent characters, but you could at least make them halfway decent ass kissers. Seriously, putting in a good job because the boss is present is kind of a no brainer. Having your strawshirts do a shit job in front of the boss is not telling me they suck at their job. It's telling me that you really do not get how slackers work. Literally.
She orders them to move on through a red light. Which is supposed to be cool and decisive and show how awesome Dagny is... except that red lights are, you know, the universal signal for bad. Her order to creep along the line until they get to the next signal is...kind of reckless and stupid, you know? For all they know, half the track could have fallen into a sink-hole, a train could have derailed and spilled clorine gas all over the place, shit could be on fire--literally anything could happen and the only thing keeping them from being right up against a potential disaster is a fucking red light.
But Dagny is the COOLEST WOMAN THAT EVER COOLED so of course its just a short and the train continues on.
This is an example of one of the many, many fatal flaws in this book. See, that light? Was there for a REASON. That reason is to let you know that continuing down this track is a MASSIVELY FUCKING STUPID IDEA. ESPECIALLY when you're riding on a track notorious for split rails, mangled curbs and chewed up engines. The "good guys" ignore warning signs, scientific studies, legal rulings and basic good sense because they want to, and the power of their wanting--literally, it's the fact that these people actually want things that makes them good guys. Not the fact that they do things. The fact that they want things--makes everything work out. Meanwhile the bad guys do LITERALLY THE EXACT SAME FUCKING THINGS and are demonized because...FREE MARKET CAPITALISM, I guess.
Anyhoo, the train makes it back to the station without crashing, and Dagny lays out her plan to salvage the Rio Norte line. She lays out a plan that is way too aggressive for James' buddy to meet, and then casually drops that she's ordered the rail from Hank Rearden, who is good because he ignores politics and never went to college, as opposed to Orren Boyle who loves both politics and college.
Note: The college comparison is one the book actually makes. Repeatedly.
James flips his shit.
Dagny tells him to call Rearden and cancel.
James continues to flip his shit while refusing to cancel because "I didn't say that."
So now it is time for OUR FIRST POLITICAL STATEMENT which...dear fucking God makes no sense at all.
And they put this guy in charge of an entire company. Somebody who has all the brains and charisma of a sack of oatmeal.
“That we always give all our business to Rearden. It seems to me we should give somebody else a chance, too. Rearden doesn’t need us; he’s plenty big enough. We ought to help the smaller fellows to develop. Otherwise, we’re just encouraging a monopoly.”
You guys remember my Gor review, right? This is a book with a cast of Elinors. ALL OF THEM ARE STRAWCHICK.
Meanwhile, brave and beautiful Dagny just keeps on trucking and talking about STEEL. Specifically the new kind of steel called Rearden Metal, which is based on a brand new formula that is completely untested.
She wants to build an entire railroad out of something that hasn't even been used in a toaster yet.
What follows is one of the strangest conversations, given the purpose of this book. Let's see if you can spot the exact moment when the book shoots itself in the foot:
“Well, whose opinion did you take?”
“I don’t ask for opinions.”
“What do you go by?”
“Well, whose judgment did you take?”
“But whom did you consult about it?”
“Then what on earth do you know about Rearden Metal?”
“That it’s the greatest thing ever put on the market.”
” “But who says so?”
“Jim, I studied engineering in college. When I see things, I see them.”
“What did you see?"
“Rearden’s formula and the tests he showed me.”Okay. There is a lot to be said for basing decisions on your own judgement. But unless Dagny has a Ph.D. in metallurgy and did the tests herself, this is not one of them. Also, sometimes you see things wrong. Sometimes you get bad information. Sometimes your attempts at P-then-Q logic breaks down. Sometimes people lie. That's why basing your judgement on the facts, tests, and opinions of an uninterested third party is important.
The creator and sole manufacturer of a new substance is not the person you depend on as a source. If anybody has a reason to lie about the magical metal, it's Hank.
Also: for a philosophy based on the stupidity of going by how you feel, that "See things" line REALLY looks like you're going by a feeling there, Dag.
They argue about Ellis Wyatt for a little while, and then Dagny drops that she's reduced their Mexican traffic as far down as she can, and James proceeds to flip his shit because apparently there's going to be a big bonanza in copper and he'll make a mint. Dagny, however, figures that the Mexicans are going to nationalize the railroad any minute and she doesn't want to leave anything valuable behind when that happens.
James says a few cutting remarks that I'll get into later, then Dagny attempts to promote one of her few remaining good employees, only for the guy to quit on the spot while replying "Who is John Galt."
So that's the first chapter of Atlas Shrugged.
Let's compare it to That Hideous Strength, shall we? (Or at least to half of the first chapter)
We start off on...an extremely interesting note:
“Matrimony was ordained, thirdly,” said Jane Studdock to herself, “for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.” She had not been to church since her schooldays until she went there six months ago to be married, and the words of the service had stuck in her mind.Okay. This is going to be a train wreck. It's a 1940s bachelor Oxford Don starting his novel about Spiritual Science Nazis with a commentary on marriage. Congratulations, we've set up one of our major themes in the first handful of seconds, and it's gonna stick to Jane's character like glue.
On the plus side, at least she gets a name within the first damn sentence.
Jane has only just recently married Mark. They met in college, where she had (gasp!) actual aspirations for a career, but...got married instead, and somehow this put her plans on hold while Mark went and got himself a job.
But really, this is a Christian novel by a very conservative man.Alright, hit me with how heavy-handed this is gonna get.
“Mutual society, help, and comfort,” said Jane bitterly. In reality marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement.
Damn.DAMN. Well, it explains why Lewis was a confirmed and proud bachelor for most of his life.
Jane attempts to get back to work on her doctoral thesis on John Donne. Apparently, she's been having a lot of trouble with it--stress in your homelife tends to do that--and Today she absolutely has to get work done. Only while she's laying everything out she comes across the newspaper, at which point she has a flashback to her dream last night.
Apparently, Jane has been having bad dreams with increasing frequency, and has been hiding them from Mark by sitting in her living room while it's still dark and shivering until he wakes up...at which point she says absolutely nothing because it's the 1940s and we've only just gotten over clitoradectomies. Seriously, this is probably the best move she could have made, given the circumstances. This dream was of a meeting between two men--one of whom was french and in jail, the other of whom spoke french and had a pointed beard. They discuss something for a while, at which point the man with the pointed beard screws off the frenchman's head and tucks it under his arm. Jane then dreams about another man, asleep, in a fine robe on a medieval bier, but after watching somebody treat another man's head like a lightbulb, it's basically a non issue.
The reason this comes up is because the french man is in the paper. His name is Alcasan. He's a good scientist and has also killed several women, so he went to the Guillotine the day before.
Jane decides that she had to have seen this paper yesterday before she dreamed. Even though it's today's paper.
She blows it off and tries to focus on Donne, and comes to the conclusion that he's pretty sexist. She also comes to the slow, but pretty awful conclusion that she had no way of seeing Alcasan's picture before the French offed him, and rather than dealing with this she throws all of her books into a pile and decides to go for a walk. And that's the end of...our half of a chapter.
So how do the two compare?
At the moment, there really isn't much to compare, given that I'm working with half a chapter from Lewis and a MASSIVE chapter from Rand, but there's a couple things here worth looking at. Probably the first thing worth pointing out is the difference between Rand's characters and Lewis's. Technically, both of these stories are religious--or at least philosophical--narratives.
I find Lewis's start-point to be very, very interesting, and particularly atypical for the genre. Lewis's goal with his stories is usually transformative. He takes characters who are one type and, by the end of the novel, are another type entirely. It'd be easy to write this off as the standard redemption narrative--COME TO JESUS--and most of his characters do fit this perfectly. But usually stories in this genre don't start with characters this far in the emotional red. There's a mundane kind of misery both Jane and Mark have that is really atypical to most Christian narratives, and unlike most Christian stories the Come to Jesus moment doesn't really solve the problem. It's even unusual for Lewis--most of his characters are either idealized good, like Ransom and the Pevensie children, or overly negative, like Eustace or Orawel from Till we Have Faces, who become idealized good by the end of the book. Instead, you have Jane, who is in a miserable marriage and possibly suffering from some form of mental illness, and Mark, who we will meet next post. They're realistically negative people whose baseline problems (SPOILER ALERT) will not be solved during the primary narrative, and it's not something you see in this type of work often.
Rand...did not choose to do that. Rather than creating characters who are all baseline and developing them as the story goes, she created clear battlelines from the get-go. You've got Eddie Willers and Dagny, cast against a bum and her brother. Which is a really effective image, and is mostly what is being set up here. Rand is heavy-handed in her characterizations. Dagny and James Taggart may grow as characters, but they don't change. This is actually far more standard in your religious narratives, which is why I feel comfortable lumping a primarily atheistic story in with This Present Darkness and the Left Behind series. It's working off the same playbook. But when it comes to her symbolism and choice of imagery, it's effective. I might rag on the Times Square clock, but it's mostly because of how badly it dates the storyline. There are several images--some I could get to, some I couldn't--that are repeated in the book over and over and over again, as kind of touch stones to show you how far the story has progressed. The thing being developed isn't so much the characters involved as it is the world they're in, and their only role is to either prevent or advance the world's progression down whatever path Rand has for it.
In short, my lovelies:
The Studdocks are intended to be reader vehicles, and instead of shiny-eyed Skywalker enthusiasm, we're starting from a baseline of disillusioned depression, which I find completely fascinating.
Dagny and James are not intended as reader vehicles. Rather, they're a pair of symbols that we get to track through the course of the story. And...yeah, Dagny is a flaming Mary Sue of the first water.
Next time: We meet Mark Studdock; Dagny takes her toys and goes to Colorado.