Deconstructing Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand’s naive ignorance of history, and of how a real business functions–it’s painfully obvious she never ran one–was already subtly visible in the first two chapters of her magnum opus Atlas Shrugg. But nowhere have I found that naivete and ignorance better illustrated than in Chapter 3 of Atlas Shrugged. We’ll get to that later.
We can see by the opening of Chapter 3 why, in the 1930s and 1940s, Ayn Rand looked attractive as a potential screenwriter. Rand’s time in Hollywood is documented in multiple places, but in short: it didn’t work out because the studio people found her difficult and she didn’t like them much either. Nevertheless, while her descriptions of people and things are often overwrought and wordy, you can sense that technical people in Hollywood would find her alluring: she likes to set up scenes that practically beg for a camera, and for costumers and set designers to start scribbling notes. As with the first two chapters, in Chapter 3 (entitled “The Top and the Bottom”) Rand starts us out not with the people so much as their setting, with a vivid description that evokes the mood that she intends to convey:
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 was built on the roof of a skyscraper.
Four men sat at a table. Raised sixty floors above the city, they did not speak loudly as one speaks from a height in the freedom of air and space; they kept their voices low, as befitted a cellar.
I can almost imagine a young Orson Welles wanting to make an Atlas Shrugged picture from that passage alone.
Although her prose often lacks elegance, Rand is clearly trying to convey something with every word here–which is true of practically everything in her fiction. Good writers often strive to do this and fail; to give credit where due, Rand doesn’t fail. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would build a skyscraper with a ritzy rooftop bar that you nevertheless have to walk down stairs to get to, and that is so dank and cloistered, but the impression is what’s important: like rats in a cellar, these people at the top of a crumbling and decaying world are meeting to collude in sinister business. Why it’s sinister is not clearly spelled out: we are meant to gather from the conversation alone that these people are philosophically evil.
…this chapter, and previous chapters, further analyzed here.