Anthem, Ayn Rand

I finished Ayn Rand’s Anthem over the weekend.

My opinion — and I say this as a guy with a shelf full of Ayn Rand’s writing, with no political axe to grind and with a generally favorable opinion of her work — is that it’s terrible. Embarassingly terrible. If Rand was any older than 15 when she wrote this, she has no excuse. When the protagonist renames himself “Prometheus,” you’ll literally be checking the margins for scribbled notes to Suzy and scratches of “AR + FO” surrounded by little hearts.

If you’re unfamiliar with Anthem, it’s a slim novella set in a dystopian alternate history where the State has fully embraced collectivism to the point that society has actually moved backwards, though without any observed (by the reader) violence. It’s a parable, if you will. Ayn Rand’s nice way of saying that without individualism we’ll all have numbers for names and use candles for light since the collective cannot agree on the benefits of electricity. It’s her 1984, her Animal Farm, her Fahrenheit 451 — sorta.

That I see it on Back to School Reading List displays at bookstores each year only confirms my long-held bias that what they have you read in schools is shit. And makes me want to go back to Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451 and see if they really were as crappy as I figure they were. (I’ve never read 1984 but Monty read it recently and told me it was pretty stupid.)

Anthem is a sample chapter of a larger work. It needs fleshing out or throwing away. There are no characters. There is no plot, no drama. There is no depth. Just an idea. And it’s an idea that conflicts with its own presentation.

What I mean is: Rand barely develops her idea of the individual against the state through her first-person narrator before the events of her novel twist it. The protagonist gives at least a chapter’s worth of the usual Rand egoism speech (John Galt-light here) before he’s moving into someone else’s abandoned house and reading all their books. Man, that self-sufficiency didn’t last long.

A much more interesting route to take would be to read the narrator’s developing understanding of how individualism benefits a society. How the individual freedom of men and women actually benefits the world at large. How collectivism hampers the progress of the very society it claims to uphold. How collectivism isn’t really about doing good but about power. Plain and brutal power.

Rand can’t develop that idea because she’s just spent a significant amount of space having this guy decry the entire world outside himself. Everything is bad, he figures, except the individual. Her protagonist discovers a whole world of innovation but he simply appropriates it as his own under a philosophy he’s just barely started exploring. It reminds me of that line in the much more intellectually-challenging Jurassic Park when Malcolm makes the statement about Hammond’s scientists. Something along the lines that they didn’t do the research that led to their discovery so they don’t have any respect for it.

That’s Rand’s protagonist right there. What’s going to happen in a year after he’s lived in a house he didn’t build made of material he doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe? There’s your damn novel. That’s interesting. The stuff of Anthem is child’s play next to that kind of conflict.