If you’re gonna make a speech in your novel, you should just make a speech!

url_quotThe_Junglequot_By_Upton_Sinclair-s312x475-108352-580John Scalzi recently linked to his review of Atlas Shrugged, which made me think of my own post about the book (which is, incidentally, my favorite novel).

And that made me remember my major criticism of the book, which is that the final third of the book is pretty superfluous. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but the book is about a heroic corporate executive who struggles to keep her railway afloat even as the United States implements increasingly authoritarian collectivist policies. About two thirds of the way through the book, though, she discovers that all her fellow industrialists (who’ve been disappearing throughout the book) are holed up in a secret colony in Colorado where they’re waiting for the United States to collapse (after which they’ll come out of the canyon and create a better and freer USA). Anyway, Dagny decides to leave the canyon because she can’t accept that her train system needs to be destroyed, and then a whole bunch of other stuff happens and she regrets her decision, etc, etc.

However, everything that happens in the book after she decides to leave the secret colony is, both from a plot and a thematic standpoint, entirely superfluous. She’s already made her decision. She’s heard what the other industrialists are planning, and she agrees with it, but she’s not willing to make the sacrifices that the plan will demand. And from the moment she goes back to her desk and tries to run the railroad, we know that she is doomed. We know that there is no way for a person like her to operate within the system that Rand has created.

The problem with the book is that it doesn’t trust its readers to understand that Dagny has made the wrong choice. And that while her choice was laudable, it was also sentimental and blind and fearfful. Instead, it needs to spend hundreds of pages maneuvering everything into place so that she’s converted, even though everything that happens has a sense of inevitability to it. Oh, and it also needs to give room for its hero to make a 50 page speech about Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

It’s silly. If you’re going to write a novel to support an idea, then write the novel. And trust that your characters and your plots have enacted it. Another novel that’s crippled in the same way is The Jungle. Upton Sinclair wanted to write a novel about how industrial society is destroying poor immigrant families, so he wrote an absolutely beautiful and heart-breaking novel. And then, after the family has fallen to pieces, the novel goes completely off the rails and the main hero becomes a socialist and we spend dozens of pages listening to speeches.

I think the desire here is to leave the audience with both: a) a sense of hope; and b) a call to future action. It’s not enough to convince them that the problem is real; you also need to convince them that your solution is the right one.

And I think that’s great.

People all the time will say something like, “Don’t write a novel to sell an agenda.” Which is obviously incorrect. There’ve been tons of people who’ve written novels in service of ideas and agendas. Personally, I’m even a big fan of putting a huge explication into the novel. I think that if you have something you’re trying to say, then it’s a moral necessity to actually come out and say it. All I’m saying is that if you’re going to do it, then you shouldn’t let it ruin the plot and character arc of your book.

If you want to include a long explication of your philosophy in your novel, there’s a very easy mechanism for doing it. You just include an essay-length addendum. Tolstoy has an absolutely fascinating 30,000 word epilogue in War And Peace where he tries to make some nonsensical point about God and God’s plan for the Earth (Napoleon is involved somehow too). Admittedly, no one reads it, but anyone who wants to read it can do so (I read and loved it). And, more importantly, he didn’t pervert the structure of his novel in order to include it! He didn’t figure out a way to turn Prince Bezubhov into a mystic who was revealed these secrets on a mountain somewhere. No. He just ended Bezubhov’s story in an apropriately tragic fashion…and then he stepped out from behind the curtain and explained himself. (George Bernard Shaw was also famous for doing this in the prefaces to his plays).

My answers to a questionairre recently given to me by a friend

A friend is writing a blog post about peoples’ favorite books. I am going to repost her questions and my answers here because I am short on time to write today’s post

If you could please provide your favorite:
1. Book you could read over and over and over again.
2. Book from your childhood (childhood ends whenever you decide it ends but please specify).
3. Book that you would be embarrassed to admit is your favorite book.
7. BOOK OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! If you have one of those.
Answers to question 1, 2, 3, and 7: My favorite book is Atlas Shrugged. It was my favorite when I was 14 and it’s my favorite now. I’ve read it at least a dozen times. I think it is sublime. (And no, I don’t believe in her political philosophy. But then…I don’t believe in Tolstoy’s either…) I wrote about it here.
4. Academic/pretentious favorite book… this category could also be thought of as “book that you maybe wouldn’t read again but really loved being forced to read in school” or “favorite book in the opposite of category #1 type of way.”
Answer to question 4: I really did love In Search Of Lost Time (which I read on my own and was not forced to read in school). But I also probably wouldn’t have stuck it out if it wasn’t as famous as it is. It’s also the book I’ve gotten by far the most mileage out of having read. It’s so expansive and so much stuff is related to it and even most people who love books haven’t read it. I do recommend it to anyone who has a few months to spare, though!
5. Out of genre/ “not my typical steeze” book (ie: “I normally never read Sci-fi/Fantasy, but I really liked [insert book title here]” or “Poems make me want to vomit except that one time when they didn’t because I read {insert poetry book here})
Answer to question 5: I don’t read much poetry, but the collected poems of Philip Larkin was amazing (only 250 pages, at least the version I got [which had all his published poems], though they have a much longer one now, which strikes me as BS. If you have an amazing 250 pages, why pad it out with 100 unpublished poems to make a turgid 450.)
6. Book to put on your shelf and admire… (you can pick a certain edition or cover or send me a pic if that’s important to you. This can also be a coffee table book that you have never read full of pictures of naked women.)

Answer to question 6: I keep my bookshelf in my bedroom, so few people ever see it. And, in any case, I recently got rid of most of my physical books. I guess the most impressive books I still have in physical form is my copy of Democracy In America by Alexis De Tocqueville. I read the first half of it ages ago, and am still planning on reading the 2nd half someday.

The insanity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

les-miserablesMy grandma doesn’t have wifi, but I thought that upon returning to New Delhi I would be reunited with my love. However, I soon discovered that the internet in my parents’ apartment is down. The four of us are reduced to using a 3g internet dongle to put cellphone internet into our computers. Truly a barbarous situation. There are so many unsync’ed Evernotes on my iPod Touch.

I am nearing the end of Les Miserables. It is truly a masterwork. I started reading it because my friend Becca was doing a re-read. She’s been blogging out it part by part by part, so if you’re interested in plot and such, that’d be a good place to go.

I like it a lot. In many ways, it reminds me of two of my favorite books: War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged (unsurprising, since Hugo was Ayn Rand’s favorite author). This is a book that contains worlds.

The primary method of world-delivery are these gargantuan digressions. The book starts with a 22,000 word novella that describes a guy—the bishop—who literally only appears for like three scenes in the main plot. That is far from the most irrelevant digression, though. There is a whole dissertation on the battle of Waterloo that could actually be cut from the book in its entirety without harming the work’s structural integrity. In fact, it’s disingenuous to even call them digressions. The book is full of charming page-long digressions that you barely notice. Those are not what I am talking about; I am talking about massive essays that stick out of the novel like shrapnel from a cannonaded corpse. In fact, I have prepared a list of some of the longer ones:

Digression Length (words)
The wealth, history, habits, character, and selected incidents from the life of Bishop Myriel(i.e. the bishop guy who lets Jean Valjean off after JV steals from him) 22,000
The Battle of Waterloo (which takes place well before the start of the action in the novel and really has no relevance to anything at all except that Thenardier appears in it for like a split-second at the end) 21,000
An exhaustive description of the organization and rules of the convent where JV and Cosette take shelter after fleeing 11,000
Why convents are TERRIBLE things 5,000
A discussion of underworld slang and whether it belongs in real literature 9,000
The habits of Paris street urchins (and why they represent all that is good and true in the soul of France!) 8,000
The nature of riots (and why they’re awesome!) 3,000
A description of the Paris sewers 15,500
The character of King Louis Phillippe (and why he deserved to be overthrown, even though he really wasn’t such a bad guy) 6,000

That’s over 100,000 words out of a 550,000 word novel. I compare it to Atlas Shrugged and War and Peace, but it’s actually nothing like that. Those works had long digressions, but their longest expositions were organic outgrowths of the plot and were also concise statements of the author’s life philosophy. Galt’s speech at the end of AS is about 33,000 words long…but it’s also the centerpiece of the book. The same is true of the long-ass (50,000 word) tract about Napoleon that comes (in conveniently skippable form—if you’re so inclined) right at the end of War and Peace.

Les Miserables is nothing like that. It reads like the work of a madmen—a person who has no concept of what people want to read or what is appropriate. I mean, it starts with 22,000 words (half of a Great Gatsby!) about some random guy. The closest thing it comes to is the weird 100 pages at the beginning of Demons where Dostoyevsky explicates on the odd love between an old professor and his patroness. But at least those two are characters in the book! They continue to appear! And at least that is largely told in scenes, with plot and stuff happening. I mean, the Myriel section is not as plotless as later essays will be, but it’s definitely not traditionally structured fiction.

It’s astonishing that Les Miserables exists and was successful and continues to be successful today. And that success is, in large part, not in spite of the digressions, but because of them. I enjoyed almost all of them (except the one about slang—god help me, I never want to hear the word ‘argot’ ever again). Some of them (particularly the one about the convent) were intensely fascinating. They add such a flair to the story. In War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged, you’re always like “Welp, here’s more objectivism” or “Welp, here’s some more stuff about the silliness of Napoleon”. But in Les Miserables, you really have no idea what you’re going to get. It’s like…”Hmm…alright…I guess we’re talking about the sewers now.”

And…I liked that.

The book is also real good. All kinds of interesting things happen in it. The characters are, like…characterey? Okay…I guess all I really wanted to talk about was the digressions. If you’re looking for a translation, I’d say that my Wilbour translation was eminently readable, although I think it’s like a century old.

There should be a National Coming-Out Day for people whose favorite novel is _Atlas Shrugged_

Normally, when some person (or social network profile) asks me for my favorite books, I murmur something about how it’s impossible for me to choose a favorite, and then I rattle off five or ten books that I’ve enjoyed recently.

That’s because the ‘favorite book’ question is a trap! All serious bibliophiles know that it’s super uncool to have a favorite book. We know that if you have a favorite book, it’s probably because you don’t read very many books. Having a ‘favorite book’ not only betrays you as a non-reader, it also betrays what kind of non-reader you are. A down-to-earth non-reader will usually admit that their favorite book is the only book that they’ve read in the last few years– usually the Da Vinci Code or Twilight–while a snooty non-reader will say that their favorite book was Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby or whatever other book they sort of enjoyed when they were forced to read it for class.

Except, you know what? That’s all a load of hogwash. Because not only do I have a favorite book…it’s also the most titanically embarrassing favorite book ever. My favorite book not only disqualifies me from making fun of anyone else for having a favorite book…it also cannot help but raise serious concerns about my literary acumen and moral hygiene.

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            I first read Atlas Shrugged when I was an eighth-grader who was travelling with my mom through India. I completely fell in love with it. Since then, I’ve probably read it 10 times. I’ve owned several paperback copies of Atlas Shrugged that have literally fallen apart at the seams. Several times in my life, I have experienced moments of great psychic pain that I tried to salve by re-reading Atlas Shrugged.

If you know anything about the novel, I think you understand why I find it to be an intolerable ‘favorite novel’ candidate. Atlas Shrugged is a 1000-page novel about a group of leading industrialists who—fed up with being leeched upon by incompetent second-raters (i.e. you and me) and a redistributionist government—decide to withdraw the priceless fruits of their mental labor from the world. These industrialists and scientists go on “strike”. They disappear, and subsequently the world comes crashing down. The government finds that there is no more wealth to redistribute. America literally crumbles: factories shut down; railroad transportation becomes unreliable; starvation becomes endemic. At the end, America is reduced to medieval times: all industry has vanished; people are reduced to subsistence agriculture.

Atlas Shrugged is an extremely popular book. Sixty years after its publication, it continues to sell hundreds of thousands of copies each year. And, as far as I can tell, the primary reason for its popularity is because most of its readers identify very strongly with its industrialist heroes. These readers also feel as if they contribute much more to society than they gain from it. They feel that their lives would be better off without government interference. They feel a terrible sense of oppression: a pervasive feeling that the machinery of society runs upon the fuel of their life’s blood. Most of the lovers of Atlas Shrugged tend to be misanthropes who believe in some flavor of libertarianism. This is unsurprising. The political philosophy of the book is completely undisguised. It contains numerous 1000+ word speeches that expound on its ideal political, philosophical, and moral system (which the book’s author called ‘Objectivism,’ since she believed it to be objectively true). Most famously, it ends with a 25,000 word radio broadcast about how the prevailing philosophy of the world (that the primary purpose of one’s life should be to help other people) is sick, irrational, and cowardly. The political system advocated by the author of Atlas Shrugged (a woman named Ayn Rand) is a laissez faire capitalism in which the government’s powers are limited to defense, policing, and enforcing contracts. In her philosophical system, the highest aim of a man should be to achieve some super awesome goal (usually building something, like a railroad, or skyscraper; but her heroes also include composers, actors, judges, financiers, etc.). Basically, her heroes include anyone who might get profiled by Forbes or Fortune magazine.

I think it’s possible that when I was thirteen, for maybe a month or so, I flirted with the notion of myself as a Randian superhero (In addition to being geniuses, the heroes of her novels are always beautiful, athletic, rigorously honest, totally free of jealousy, and wonderful at all the incidentals, like fashion, sports, music, etc.) However, I don’t think Rand’s political or philosophical beliefs have strongly influenced my own thinking.

If anything, I am very suspicious of the whole notion of heroism. My bias is that people’s lives are strongly determined by their economic and social circumstances. If anyone is ‘heroic’ it is only because society has put them in a space where heroism is expected of them.

Furthermore, I am extremely skeptical of Rand’s notion that economic and intellectual progress is the product of heroic effort. For instance, in the field of scientific progress, it seems like it’s more common than not for things to be invented multiple times, independently (e.g., the television; the airplane; differential calculus; the laws of genetic inheritance; and the theory of evolution by natural selection).

For me, the entire structure of Atlas Shrugged is founded on a rotten edifice. I consider its political and philosophical theories to be nonsense. If that wasn’t bad enough, most of its biggest fans are people whom I find to be frightening and incomprehensible, and many of its detractors–people who say that the book has no artistic merit–are people whose literary judgment I respect. And that’s why I’d slowly been moving away from considering it to be my favorite book. Over the last three years, I’ve significantly expanded my reading, and I have purposefully steered clear of re-reading Atlas Shrugged. I had hoped to expand my tastes and eventually reach the point where I perceived (and was disgusted by) all the qualities that have landed the book in such disrepute amongst literary circles.

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            Which brings us to four days ago.

Sometimes I get a very visceral sense of the likely odds that my life is going to be a failure. I suddenly realize that it’s more likely than not that I will never produce a worthwhile novel or story. I start to imagine myself as a 35 or 40 year old who has wasted his most productive years: a future Rahul who will be considered a failure by all his friends and family. Once, when I had a similar feeling in college, I combated this feeling by reading Atlas Shrugged.

That’s what I decided to do four days ago.

First of all, it worked. That sick dread disappeared.

Second of all, I was able to see flaws that I hadn’t seen before. The most egregious one is that the final third of the book is superfluous. The character’s arcs are not furthered by the action of the last third of the novel. The only fun of this section is in getting to see the U.S. collapse in a rather long and drawn out (albeit very exciting) fashion.  Furthermore, the ending feels…wrong. The book has a really taut, stirring first third, where the heroine (the Operations Vice President of a railroad) and the hero (the owner of a steel company and the inventor of a new, lighter, totes-better form of steel) fight–against government interference and public opprobrium–to build a desperately-needed rail-line out of the new steel. This first third seems to give the book the traditional structure of a naturalistic novel; one in which the heroes almost achieve success in the first act, and then are slowly crushed into paste by society during the second and third act. In this case, the set-up for the crushing is clear. The hero and heroine are struggling to avoid joining the ‘strike’. They’re unable to let their companies collapse, even though their success in running those companies is fuelling the government’s expropriatory greed. In the end of the novel, they ought to be defeated…sucked dry and discarded by the government. Instead, they eventually decide to join the strike, and then the book sort of totters onwards for another hundred and fifty thousand words.

Also, although the book’s prose isn’t without a certain elegance, it can be sloppy. People act in a rather melodramatic fashion and they make bodily motions that it’s hard to imagine them  making in real life. There’s rather a lot of people collapsing to their knees and lying prostrate and  making the kinds of gestures that, if you try to block them out in your mind, look fairly silly. Furthermore, most of the dialogue (although it works okay on the page) would sound abominable if spoken out loud (which the recent Atlas Shrugged movie proved pretty comprehensively). There’s a lot of people intuiting very complex emotions from another person’s eyes and there are a lot of visuals that don’t actually look like anything. As in, if you try to imagine them, you come up with a blank. But, none of that is really unforgiveable. The book has a clipped yet overwrought style, like each sentence is a rivet being pounded into the novel by a jackhammer, that I found to be very engaging.

And, oh yeah, the book is definitely still my favorite novel.

I don’t know. It’s unaccountable. I guess the only thing I can say is that when I was a few hundred pages into the book, I realized that Atlas Shrugged is not a realist novel; it’s not even a polemic; it’s a myth.

And myths play by different rules.

I mean, there never was a king who was as good as King Arthur. 90% of Kings—even (especially!) the ‘Good’s and ‘Great’s—were ruthless bastards. Almost every king was a sly crook who lived by extracting backbreaking rents from his subjects. The whole monarchical institution was, from top to bottom, extremely corrupt, and it was a wonderful day for the world when it finally disappeared. But…that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the legend of King Arthur.

You can say the same thing about any myth. They’re all full of grotesque lessons. The Lord of the Rings (as many commentators have pointed out) is pretty much a war of racial genocide: orcs deserve to die simply because they’re orcs. And, yet, we love LotR not in spite of that, but because of it. We love LotR because of the moral clarity provided by its slanted set-up. There never was a war in the real world that was quite so perfectly justified as the war of Gondor against Mordor….and that’s why there was never a real-world war that felt quite as heroic as LotR’s.

In the same way, the real world does not contain capitalist superheroes. But it should. Wouldn’t we rather live in a world where our corporations were run by beautiful inventor-geniuses?

The heroism of Atlas Shrugged is accessible to us. It’s composed of the same elements as our own lives. The heroes of Rand’s novels struggle to build things; they decide that it would be excellent and beautiful for something to exist, and then they make it exist. And the enemy that they struggle with is of the same type as the enemies we encounter in our lives. The typical Randian villain is a faceless, mindless bureaucrat or an indifferent, blankly-staring crowd. In the same way, we encounter very few concrete villains when we set out to do something; usually our obstacle is just a sort of global indifference…no one in the world really cares whether we succeed or not…the world is composed of actors who are pursuing their own aims and who, in the course of doing so, happen to erect obstacles against us.

When I am a 35 year old failure, it won’t be because Sauron invaded my kingdom and blackened my fields and destroyed my castles. It will be because I wrote stories that no one cared about. It will be because I released work into the world and received only silence. It will be because thousands of readers read the first few pages of my book and then put it back on the shelf.

To me, there’s something mythologically powerful in Rand’s rendering of these malevolent forces as a horde of thoughtless, cliché-spouted government buffoons.            There’s something that captures the imagination about beautiful business tycoons working with all their strength and intelligence and then being spit upon by an ungrateful public.

Not only that, she also creates such beautiful mirages. Her heroes and heroines are utterly self-contained. They might be thwarted, but they are never unhappy. They never feel shame. They never feel jealousy. They are perfectly secure in their own perfection.

There is something supercharged about them. They’re like airbrushed models: they’re more beautiful than anything that can exist in reality…but that doesn’t stop us from being susceptible to that beauty.

And they’re dangerous in the same way that airbrushed models are dangerous. Because her heroes and heroines act so powerfully on our senses—on our sense of the way that people should be—we can get too caught up in chasing after these mirages. The end result is blindness to the real conditions of the world.

But I don’t think it is a flaw in a work of art to be too successful at creating a fantastic illusion, and I don’t think it’s a flaw in myself that I am susceptible to that illusion.

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            Of course, it’s pretty clear that this is not the way Ayn Rand intended her book to be understood. In the last line of the version I read (in the Author Notes), she writes: “Let no one tell me that these men don’t exist. I have met them.”

She wanted her work to be taken literally. And she wanted it to touch off a movement for political reform. In fact, there’s a whole section of the book where the composer Richard Halley says that he only wants fans who appreciate his music in the way it was meant to be understood…that he’s tired of buffoons who have an emotional reaction to his work without appreciating it intellectually.

To Ayn Rand, people like me would be the fools. But, whatever, she’s dead. And the book is a lot better for her absence.

Atlas Shrugged is a tremendously powerful work that’s a victim of its own specificity. If she’d eliminated the speeches and allowed a little more room for nuance (in the way that, say, Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina), I think it would be seen as the great work of literature that it is. And I think there is a chance that someday the political situation in the U.S. will change in such a way that appreciation for Atlas Shrugged is not politically distasteful in the ways that I mentioned in the first third of this essay. If that happens, I think that there is a significant chance that there will be a critical reappraisal of the book’s literary merits. And, if I (through some miracle) am not a failure, then I will lead that reappraisal.

And after Ayn Rand takes her place in the canon (that she hated), I will go and dance on her grave.