Friday, September 18, 2015

Atlas Shrugged/THS pt 3

Alright. I'm gonna give Ayn Rand credit for one thing: She can write descriptions and nail imagry. She might be tone deaf when it comes to nuance, social issues and giving fucks about other humans, but oh my god when she turns on the purple it...kinda works.

The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under the ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and it was built on the roof of a skyscraper.
And being a refugee of the bar and restaurant scene, I kind of love Rand's barely hidden contempt for "let's fake a hole in the wall" asthetics, especially that "descent" when your bar is built on top of a goddamn skyscraper. I worked for a place that went all out Wild West, complete with an antique bar, smokey karosine lanterns--that gave every. single. fucking. waiter. heart attacks when we had people under them--and wooden panelling that took two weeks to install and another week--with three different chemicals--to stain. It was a pretty neat place--and that bar was a work of beauty and I'm glad it got another life--but the western theme was kind of ruined by the year-round Christmas lights draped on every ceiling beam and light fixture. Yeah, this is a thing, and it's not dead, and it's probably the only thing I'd love to help Rand roast alive.

It's also the perfect place for James "I've got no dick" Taggart to be meeting with his three buddies, Orran Boyle, Westly Mouch--who Hank Rearden ID'd as his pet lobbiest, so sucks to be Hank--and Paul Larkin, who was Hank's buddy. So it Really sucks to be Hank.

One thing I haven't brought up, mostly because I think it's the world's dumbest gimmick, is that each chapter has a title and, like most random details in this book, the titles Mean Something. Unfortunately for us the title is "The Top and the Bottom" and this chapter will mostly be Rand building a Strawman for altruistic socialism when fueled by capitalistic idiots, showcased by these four morons talking.

Lemme make it clear: Rand does not write characters. Rand writes touchstones with dialogue. And for some reason Rand thinks that the kind of socialist college students who studied Marx to irritate their dads would somehow become CEOs and Lobbiests, so these characters have exactly one note, and that note is WHINE. 

 And for the record, I consider myself to be a capitalist, and I don't really like government-funded altruism programs, mostly because why would you give that responsibility to THOSE people. That said, I believe that we do have a responsibility to take care of other humans, and that if you've got the cash, the time, or the ability to help somebody else, you should do it. Denying that responsibility on the basis of "Fuck you, got mine" makes you a bad human, and applying that principal to the government is an even worse idea than expecting the people who can't remember how to hit "erase" on their tape recorder. Any legislation from the government will, IMHO, have the primary motive of controlling the actions and behaviors of the people who vote for them. I believe in a small government because the government fucking up by the numbers is a lot harder to fix than individual errors. I also think that both sides have real good arguements, and that none of those arguements made it into this fucking book.

Orran Boyle starts out the grape-fest by whinging about Hank Rearden's untested not-steel and how it's going to destroy the industry, splattered with apologies to James Taggart for being unable to make rails out of real steel for him. James's entire contribution to the conversation is to spout off things that capitalists think socialists say, and stare into his drink.

“Disunity,” drawled James Taggart, “seems to be the basic cause of all social problems.
Right. Because it can't be privilege, racism, sexism, unequal access to resources and the sheer bad luck of living in the wrong part of the country when the Natural Disaster Roulette Wheel happens to land on your number.

Orran Boyle agrees, then argues that "It’s my absolute opinion that in our complex industrial society, no business enterprise can succeed without sharing the burden of the problems of other enterprises.”

He then quickly proves that he means his burdens and other people's companies, and it contains a line that is even more hilarious than Rand probably intended, because Orran says he has the best company because Associated Steel won a Globe.

Between Orran's whining and Rand's exposition, we learn that there's a big steel ore shortage. I'm not sure if Rand wants this to be an actual shortage, or just a shortage of people who know how to run a mine. Which...actually brings up a pretty big narrative failing, because steel ore drying up would be a really, really good reason for Hank to create his metal. It's not the power of his wanting that drives him, but a quickly developing need that will need to be solved long, long before anybody understands that there's a problem. It would justify Dagny using Rearden Metal on her railroad, and increase the drama of another couple points. But having the emergancy be, you know, something other than smart people quitting their jobs would detract from Rand's point.

So while Orran Boyle is saying shit like “The only justification of private property is public service.” and "private property is a trusteeship held for the benefit of society as a whole.” (By the way, nearly a thousand people highlighted that phrase) Westly Mouch is nodding like a bobble head. Every once in a while he says something like "Uh-huh" and "That's true" and lets Jim elbow him off the table. Seriously, the fact that James Taggart has a horrible sense of personal space gets a couple paragraphs.

That's another point I have to give to Rand. She might not be making real characters, but everything, and I do mean everything that they do is consistent. Rand poses her strawmen so that their actions and behaviors reflect their words, giving you the impression that they really, truely, actively believe what they're saying--and also that they don't believe it, at all, and are purely selfish assholes. Boyle's dialogues about how "businesses must carry each other's burdens" are bookended by James's wish for the waitstaff to be fired for mixing weak drinks, and Dagny's philosophical meanderings are punctuated by her strong, purposeful movements.

The point of this conversation is for Rand to lay out her utter incomprehension of socialism, but Orran Boyle also wants James, Mouch and Paul Larson to take Hank's company apart via legislation. Hank's got his own iron ore mines, which is why he can make steel and Boyle can't. Rather than trying to find his own mine, Boyle wants to take away Hank's so that they both don't have one. Congrats, our understanding of socialism is officially at Grade School Republican Diatribe level. Boyle's attempts at manipulation are blatant, obvious and byzantine, and nobody calls him on it because they'll have their own manipulative projects and they want him to support them when it's their turn.

The problem here is that Rand's strawmen defeat her own arguement fairly handily. It begins when Paul Larkin has a loud emotional outburst at the thought of hurting Hank. James replies:

“That is an anti-social attitude,” drawled Taggart. “People who are afraid to sacrifice somebody have no business talking about a common purpose.”
And holy shit James Taggart is a motherfucking Sociopath. Yeah, I get that this is Rand's arguement in a nutshel--that socialism is intrinsically anti-social--but in making that arguement she expects me to believe that anybody could listen to that phrase and think "Yeah, let's listen to this guy." Seriously, the entire book rests on the idea that people are dumb, that they are so lacking in intelligence and basic social instincts that they are incapable of recognizing a motherfucking sociopath advocating business cannibalism, and then, mind, then that the human spirit is great and wonderful and noble and worth saving.

There is a scene in Terry Goodkind's laughably terrible Sword of Truth series in which a society damned to an eternity of purposefully terrible artwork (Specifically terrible statues) are brought about to the hero's mode of thinking by a single sculpture proclaiming that "Your lives are your own!" It's stupid, it's melodramatic as fuck, but at least it's based on an idea of an inalterable quality in humans that, once presented with, humans recognize. This is exactly the opposite. It's an argument that people are too brain-dead and unobservant to know that James Taggart--not to mention everybody else at this table--is not somebody you want to be around. Ever.

And the thing is? Humans are good--and I mean really, really, really good--at recognizing anti-social behavior. It's kind of like knowing when you've put your hand in a fire. This is why the vast majority of us don't follow cults, have abusive relationships, or let pick up artists be anything other than phenomenal asshats. We know on an instinctive level that this is not safe, and we back away. Humans are an interdependant species--not just social, in that we like to be around each other, but in that we do actively need the support other humans provide. There's a very good argument that some functions--ie the massive pain of childbirth--exist in their current state to drive one human to seek out another specifically for help. And when humans do find themselves involved in antisocial relationships, it's usually because something--ie a manipulative abuser--actively worked to break them.

In order for the universe Ayn Rand is creating to exist, humans would have to have their basic survival instincts--the same things that make us recoil from hot stovetops and avoid bitter food--so badly blunted that they are beyond function. AND IN THE SAME MOMENT she wants us to believe in the nobility of man as a thing of value in and of itself that cannot be defeated, and that a defeat of said nobility in an individual means that person no longer has worth. In fact, I could stop this entire critique right here, right now, because this is the problem of Atlas Shrugged and most of Rand's other writing. Rand is presenting two absolutely contradictory ideas--innate human nobility and innate human stupidity--and demanding that we give value to both. HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT WORK THIS WAY.

 But that's where this gets really, really weird, and why I'm comparing C.S. Lewis's writing to Rand's. It starts with this line:

“I can’t be expected to buck the trend of the whole world, can I?” Larkin seemed to plead, but the plea was not addressed to anyone. “Can I?”
If there is one person gifted at creating iffy Strawmen, it's C.S. Lewis. He also creates some really good characters--Til We Have Faces is probably his best character work, because he is very, very careful to give everybody from the Pagan murder-priests to the athiestic Greek Fox a solidly realistic point of view--but when he takes off his writer hat and puts on his theologian one, oh my fucking God are the scarecrows everywhere. In the Great Divorce--something he wrote in response to the Marrige of Heaven and Hell--there is a long, long, long conversation between two priests about "going against the Mind of the Age" and I swear to fucking God you could take Larkin's line, lop out the middle bit, drop it in the Great Divorce and nobody could tell.

 Rand's writing really, really should not sound like a theologian's response to somebody else's work.

Anyway, the fantastic four here babble on about laws, and legislation, and then remind everybody that they are Heavily Invested in a copper mine in Mexico run by Francisco D'Anconia, and that Mexico is going to nationalize this mine any chapter now. James also finds out that there's nearly no trains on his railroad down there but plays it off rather cool for a drunk guy.

Then the chapter ends and...oh yeah. This part.

Ladies and gentlemen, Dagny Taggart's life history will take up the rest of the chapter.

One thing I've learned as a writer is that character history does not equal character development. I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road, having never watched any other Mad Max movie. I knew Max was Mel Gibson and that cars are involved...and that's about it. And oh my GOD was that a good movie. Fury Road is a kick-ass movie for a lot of reasons (Heavy Metal Platform Speaker Car complete with DOUBLE NECKED FIRE-SHOOTING GUITAR) but what struck me as the most notable is how little character history you get. You learn very, very little of Max, beyond that he's running from dead people. I kept waiting for the long conversation between him and Furiosa where he explained how his wife died saving a colony of bees or something, but that never happened. And he's the one with the most history in the story. Immortan Joe rules a town. His Wives are probably kidnap victims, Furiosa came from a random desert tribe, and what the blue fuck is Nux anyway? But the characters are far, far from being blank slates. Every single one of them is richly developed within seconds of seeing them on screen--and in the case of the Wives, well before we're even aware of their existance. Max and Furiosa's arcs are fairly predictable, but Nux's transition from annoying little fucker to (MASSIVELY CENSORED SPOILERS) was incredibly well done. And only one of these characters has anything remotely resembling a detailed backstory, and that's only because he's from three other movies.

So I am not going to rehash how Dagny grew up around ancient trees and flowers, how she feels "arrogant pleasure" (SERIOUSLY RAND? ARROGANCE AS A POSITIVE CHARACTER TRAIT?!?) at the sight of her railroad, or how she immediately grasped the greatness of the men behind mathmatics. Nor am I going to repeat every single, slow, groping step it took for her to get into the boardroom. These things would not matter even if this were a character driven story and it matters even less here. Dagny's entire purpose is to stand up pretty and spout whatever point Rand wants to make at this particular moment, and nothing in her backstory either helps or detracts from this preformance. The only thing we learn of any value is that she's lonely because nobody is her equal, and that could have been accomplished with about five fewer pages of boring descriptions of her first job at a switch-house.

 We also get the full history of the San Sebastian mines--those copper mines James invested in--and it is, if possible, even worse. Because not only is it unnecessary, it is extraordinarily, extremely racist.

“The Mexicans, it seems to me, are a very diligent people, crushed by their primitive economy. How can they become industrialized if nobody lends them a hand?”
 Folks, I live approximately three hours away from the Texas-Mexico border, in an area where Hispanics--the term on the census, and the term I hear used most frequently in the area--are 80% of the population. To say that Mexico needs to "become" industrialized is to say that--well, America needs to "become" industrialized. Meaning that if you say that, you have just exposed yourself as an ignorant moron (Who is probably really white). Mexico is not miles of rolling desert with cacti, drug lords, cantinas, folklorico dancers and bull-fighters every twenty miles. It's the country with the BIGGEST CITY IN THE WORLD that also happens to be BUILT IN THE MIDDLE OF A FUCKING LAKE. (And up until 2002, it had the last remaining Volkswagon Beetle factory, which has sadly closed its doors).

Even if Mexico became a "People's State" whatever the fuck that is, it would still be an industrialized country. It would still produce goods of some level of quality and would still grow that technology reguardless of who or what ran Mexico City. America might like to take pot-shots at Soviet-era Russia for shoddy tech, but it developed functional nuclear technology (FYI Chernobyl was the result of about five human errors and a wanton disregard for the USSR's safety regs, which it DID have) and a working space program (...though that does depend on your definition of "working" given how it crispy fried Vladimir Komarov) at pretty much the same rate we did. The only reason they never made it to the moon is it was basically a missile-based dick-measuring contest. The nearest thing to Rand's vision of "the People's Republic of Mexico" we've ever seen is North Korea--and admittedly, I agree with the theory that nobody's tried to take it over because frankly, who the hell would want to? so I probably shouldn't talk about North Korea--and that is only because it purposefully isolated itself from anything that isn't North Korea. And EVEN THERE you have a steady flow of technology both in and out of the country and solid modernization, complete with cell phones, computers and a working electrical grid. The reason North Korea is dark except for Pyongyang is because the Kim family only lives in Pyongyang. As for the rest of the world, the US might have spent the last fifteen years fucking the Middle East over but, Dubai is still building things that make Michael Bay blush. African nations only appear backwards to a western audience because we only send our camera crews to the savanna's version of an Appalacian coal-mining town (or meth-head trailer park) and--seriously, I could go on for hours and that's not even touching the whole "primitive people" superiority complex bullshit. In other words, the kind of backwards degraded culture Rand is proposing here not only is not possible, it doesn't exist.

Which means that Dagny's entire reason for not wanting to invest in Mexico--ie that it takes resources away from a failing Taggart Transcontinental because Mexico has no resources of its own--is inaccurate, short-sighted and very, very, VERY racist.

Dagny is also putting all--and I mean ALL-of the Taggart eggs in Ellis Wyatt's basket because he has OIL.


Dagny is so stricken by the idea of building a railroad line to Mexico--and by the way we are STILL in a fucking flashback--that she considers leaving Taggart Transcontinental, her one true wub dream job. But no. She's still here, still fighting, and has still stripped down the line in Mexico to whatever rattle-traps and leaky boilers she didn't want to put on American rails. Meanwhile the construction of the line is described in detail that implies that Mexico really is a deserted backwards wasteland of scrub brush and villages made up of cantinas and stucco churches.

So the only thing we've learned from this ENTIRE THING is how Dagny Taggart is a flaming racist. WOW.

...and then James comes in to yell at his sister for abandoning the Mexican line.

...didn't we already do this? Back in chapter one? Dagny told James she'd done this and he flipped his fucking goard? WHY ARE WE DOING THIS AGAIN?

 There is one good comparison here, though, and I don't think Rand intended this. Dagny, near the end of the Flashback that didn't Flash, thought about how much she wants the company to do well and how the rebuilt Rio Norte line would "redeem the rest". Noble. Now James is on about the copper mines and he says this:

. Why, the copper traffic alone will pay for everything.”
In other words, it's just another example of how James is wrong to think that way because he's a dirty socialist, whereas Dagny is right because she wants things. RIGHT!

And Francisco D'Anconia is her ex-friend and ex-lover and oh good Christ I don't care anymore. Dagny and James fight for a few pages and then she goes home, thinking about her ancestor because of course what we need right now is more of Dagny's backstory. She stops at a cigarette stand near her house and we meet the Cigarette Collector, who is, God help me, an important plot point for later. Why does he collect Cigarettes?

He glanced at her and did not answer. Then he said, “I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind— and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”
And I think it's appropriete that this book is comparing ideas to cigarettes, because too much of this one is probably going to give me cancer!

The Cigarette Collector promptly freaks Dagny out--as in she literally screams at him--by asking "Who is John Galt?" and the scene ends.

So that we can transition to Eddie Williers talking to a random employee in the railroad cafeteria.

Right. This shit. I'm going to spoil a major plot point--mostly because it is so flaming obvious it's unreal--and just tell you what's going on, otherwise I can't begin to make this part coherent. Eddie Williers is talking to John Galt. Eddie is talking to John Galt because otherwise John would have no way of getting the information he needs to do the sort of things the plot demands that he do. Which is mostly "Fuck with Dagny Taggart" and "Kidnap smart people". However, because John Galt is 1. supposed to be a big secretive figure and 2. ACTUALLY EMPLOYED BY DAGNY UNDER HIS REAL NAME, Galt gets absolutely no written dialogue whatsoever. Instead we get Eddie Willers' stream of consciousness with a scattering of ellipsis that make it look like Rand hit her book with bird shot. Galt's responses are repeated by Eddie in the form of questions. The entire effect does little to add to suspense and does an awful, awful lot to undermine Eddie's credibilty. Given developments later on, this is a very, very, very stupid move on Rand's part, because it implies that John has no other way to get info on his targets than the extremely unlikely chance encounter with random CEO assistants in business cafeterias.

And everthing he's talking about is something that the plot has already covered in excrucating, painful detail, and repeated at least one other time in another scene. And after telling John--who, mind, is just a random employee having a surreal conversation with his boss's glorified secretary--that Dagny's favorite composer is Richard Halley, the chapter finally, mercifully, ends.

And now for That Hideous Strength.

 After leaving the flat that morning Jane also had gone down to Edgestow and bought a hat. 

Oh simple, concise writing how very much I have missed thee.

She had before now expressed some contempt for the kind of woman who buys hats, as a man buys drinks, for a stimulant and a consolation. It did not occur to her that she was doing so herself on this occasion.

I know it looks a lot like I'm kissing Lewis's ass on this book, and that's mostly because...well, I am. The issues I have with THS are, in this order, the pacing, the Lesbian villian, and Lewis's painful attempt at women's issues, a subject he really, really, REALLY did not get at fucking all. But after pages and pages of unnecessary character backstory this simple, single half-a-paragraph of actual character development is a fucking breath of fresh air.

She also runs into Mrs. Dimble, the wife of Cecil Dimble and the unofficial den mother for Jane's former dorm. It's quickly established that Jane has been losing touch with the Dimbles now that she's not Mr. Dimble's student anymore, and Mrs. Dimble uses the hat as an excuse to invite Jane out to lunch. It's established even faster that the Dimbles' house is beautiful, comfortable, welcoming and rather famous for being all three. We get a good sense of how much Jane likes it there.

“You’d better take a good look at it then,” said Dr. Dimble. 
“What do you mean?” asked Jane. 
“Haven’t you told her?” said Dr. Dimble to his wife.
 “I haven’t screwed myself up to it yet,” said Mrs. Dimble. “Besides, poor dear, her husband is one of the villains of the piece. Anyway, I expect she knows.”
Yes. See, along with the sale of Bragdon Wood, which we covered last time, goes a lot of other properties the college owns. The wood was the important bit to the college because it has History and gives the college character...but all those other properties that weren't even important enough to bring up at the meeting were other people's houses. The Dimbles and, it seems, about half of Edgestow, are about to be thrown out so the NICE can build their facility.

Guys, I just read at least forty Kindle pages in which the plot was not advanced one iota, and here we have character development, two new, major characters introduced and the stakes (minorly) raised in less than three.

There's about a paragraph devoted to looking at the hat, and then this exchange happens:

When the hat was being put away again Mrs. Dimble suddenly said, “There’s nothing wrong, is there?”
 “Wrong?” said Jane. “Why? What should there be?” 
“You’re not looking yourself.” 
“Oh, I’m all right,” said Jane aloud. Mentally she added, “She’s dying to know whether I’m going to have a baby. That sort of woman always is.”
I really like this, because in the preceeding paragraphs Lewis--through Jane--spends a lot of time poking at the attitude that feminine women are all babies and clothes and and fluff and have nothing of substance. I don't really get what he intends to do with it now that he's jammed a stick at it--the veneer of disapproval suggests he's trying to lampoon the concept--but he's certainly doing--

 “Do you hate being kissed?” said Mrs. Dimble unexpectedly.

WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK. No, folks. No, Mrs. Dimble is not the lesbian character I have so many issues with, and I have absolutely no idea what this is. I've read this book multiple times for pure enjoyment and I've always assumed that Mrs. Dimble has noticed that there's something wrong with Jane's marrage, but what the hell.

However, this absolutely shatters Jane, because it got too close to her actual problem, and she breaks down in tears. Mrs. Dimble puts her back together and gets Jane to admit the real problem: She's in an unhappy marrige and, oh yeah, PSYCHIC NIGHTMARES.

Mr. Dimble, meanwhile, begins rambling on about Arthurian legands, which is a preamble to one of my absolute favorite characters in this or any other book, and is comparing Camelot with Briton directly before the Axis invasion--and it is very, very, VERY Briton-centric, to the point where if this were an American novel, we'd be riding on a F-15 painted like an eagle shedding 'Murican flags with fire shooting out of our ass--and then this happens:

And where would Merlin be?” “Yes. . . . He’s the really interesting figure. ...Has it ever struck you what an odd creation Merlin is? He’s not evil; yet he’s a magician. He is obviously a druid; yet he knows all about the Grail. He’s ‘the devil’s son’; but then Layamon goes out of his way to tell you that the kind of being who fathered Merlin needn’t have been bad after all...“I often wonder,” said Dr. Dimble, “whether Merlin doesn’t represent the last trace of something the later tradition has quite forgotten about— something that became impossible when the only people in touch with the supernatural were either white or black, either priests or sorcerers.”

There is a really great idea that he's introducing here that I probably won't have space to get in to (Thanks bunches, Ayn) but this is the start of why I love this book so fucking much. C.S. Lewis, one of the best Christian theologians of all time, has just written that perhaps there was something of value in pre-Christian religions.

And yes. This is going to be a running theme with massive, massive payoffs in the future.

Dimble then begins talking about what the NICE might dig up while they're building their new HQ where the Dimbles' garden used to be. Dimble fancies that it might be Merlin, and that the guy running the NICE--Jules, which is Lewis taking a pot-shot at his contemporaries--isn't the type to think he'd inherit "Merlin's Mantle". Jane remembers the last half of her nightmare, the prone guy in a tomb, and damn near faints on the Dimbles' table--and it is not played off as "silly woman". Instead, its treated as a real, significant emotional shock.

Jane describes her dream to Dimble and tries to laugh it off, as she figures Dimble will either dismiss her as a silly woman, or figure she's crazy. He does neither.

“Extraordinary thing . . . most extraordinary,” he kept muttering. “Two heads. And one of them Alcasan’s. Now is that a false scent . . . ?”
However, one of his current students needs him, so he tells Jane that 1. She's sane and 2. if she absolutely, positively has to tell somebody about her dreams, please go talk to a friend of theirs before she goes to anybody else. The chapter ends with Jane going home.

No comments:

Post a Comment