Friday, June 15, 2001
A Cheerleader's Guide to Ayn Rand
I was giving a list of my top ten favorite books, and Ayn Rand's We the Living was on it. A wise friend, reading my list, had an apoplectic fit, along the lines of "What the hell are you thinking? Is there a horribly misshapen ogre standing behind you forcing you to include that book? One who thinks Ayn Rand isn't a dangerous raving lunatic? One who is smoking some serious ogre crack?" And the truth is, I can understand the question. Faulkner wasn't on my list. Neither was Joyce. Hemingway had been left off. And there was Ayn Rand with her sour little mouth and her razor sharp bob, smugly taking up her slot. Inexplicable.
And I turned to my ogre and said, "Ogre, will I ever be able to explain? Will they ever let me rejoin the cool kids in the cafeteria? Should I turn in my funky glasses forever?" And my patient, drooling ogre did not know. He was at a loss himself.
Why is it that Ayn Rand makes such an impression on feeble-minded hormone-driven teenagers, an impression so lasting and deadly that ten years later that ex-teenager is compelled to favor her work above actual literature? I do believe that teenagers are uniquely situated to receive the philosophy of Ayn Rand, especially the part about how it's all about you, how you really are special, and different, and how everyone else is a mindless brainless automaton, a gelatinous amoeba, utterly and eternally beneath you, you who are obviously the glittering genius of the ages, the ultimate self. Yes, it is the "virtue of selfishness" that teenagers find they conveniently already possess.
When I was fifteen, and picked up The Fountainhead, I read it constantly until it was over. I read it in the hallways, in the bathtub, under the covers with the light from the heating pad. Then I moved on to Atlas Shrugged, and so on, and so on. I wrote essays. I argued with my parents. I looked down upon the masses. I sneered at my teachers. Yes, I was sucked in completely. And why NOT? At that age, you need a little affirmation. As long as you get yourself straight to college, pick up Karl Marx, and become a flaming socialist, I think a little Ayn Rand applied with a thick brush to the fragile teen ego might just be what helped me make it through high school.
But NOW I know better, right?
Well... yes. Politically speaking. But as a writer, I have to stand back and admire the accomplishment. I don't think anyone has translated philosophy into fiction as effectively, ever. Sure, as I look at the books now, I realize the characters are cartoonish, talking heads, but even if you skip the speeches, can you really escape the story? To vibrantly transpose ideas into characters, landscape, and such a sweeping worldview into an actually world-encompassing plot -- that is amazing. Everyone has read non-fiction texts they will remember forever, I guess. But Ayn Rand's novels really say to me that there's no better way to get your point across than to bring characters to life, set them moving on a stage of your creation, and show the reader, rather than tell, how the world really is, in your eyes.
So what if it only makes sense to self-absorbed high schoolers. As a method, it's brilliant. And inspiring. I don't agree with her anymore, that's true, but I have taken permanent notice of her technique. And while I don't write ten-page dissertations for characters to recite at the end of every book, I do still feel that fiction is the best way to write.
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