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Ellis Weiner

Ellis Weiner

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What I Learned from Parodying Atlas Shrugged

Posted: 04/21/11 10:18 PM ET

I've been writing parodies professionally since 1974, and boy, are my arms tired. In fact I don't do it much any more -- not because it isn't fun, but because there are no longer magazines willing to pay bad, let alone good, money for such things.

Which is too bad, since I'd always thought of parody as a kind of commando literary criticism. (No, not "literary criticism while not wearing any underwear." That's something else.) You sneak in, openly disguised as the writer in question, and leave behind self-detonating explosives of absurdity that inflict well-deserved devastation on the writer's style, themes, and ideas.

Yes, a guy sitting at home at a keyboard, making himself giggle, comparing himself to a Navy SEAL or a Green Beret: it's exactly the kind of pathetic, self-aggrandizing fantasy that right-wing bloggers and pundits engage in all day, every day. Maybe, in my heart of hearts, I'm one of those "conservative" nitwits who think it's brave to dress up like Thomas Jefferson and swan around Tea Party rallies gassing off to grandmothers in lawn chairs about "tyranny."

In any case, it took me a while to realize what should have been perfectly obvious: that Atlas Shrugged (about which I've written several times in these "pages") was and is so ripe for parody, it's not even funny. It's not even necessary, either, in some ways, since, like all truly horrible books, it parodies itself, brimming and fit to bust as it is with excellent, excellent examples of awful, awful writing.

Want an example taken at random from opening the book with eyes shut? Done: "It was not in the nature of his consciousness to understand the nature of the things he was hearing." (This must have been more compelling in the original Spanish.) Or: "Rearden sat very still; the words in his mind were like the beat of steps down the trail he had been seeking; the words were the sanction of the victim." (No they weren't. A person in conversation does not have "words in his mind." Words come to him without his having to think of them "in his mind" first. And "the beat of steps down the trail" makes literally no sense.)

Yeah, it's cheap fun, and I expected it going in. But what took me by surprise, and what still amazes me to this very day, is this: The novel's antagonists -- the bad guys, their pernicious "values," the ideas against which Rand's demi-god heroes and heroines do verbose, tedious battle -- they do not exist in real life. Of course, neither do Sauron or Voldemort. But Atlas Shrugged is a 1,000-page, 643,000-(I counted them)-word diatribe against an imaginary enemy that, unlike Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter books, insists it's about "reality."

The government of the U.S., such as it is, has no executive, legislative, or judicial branches. There is no president, Congress, or Supreme Court. Instead, a corrupt cabal of bureaucrats issues edicts based, ostensibly, on the rationale of a whiny five-year-old ("It's not fair!") while essentially safeguarding their own power, but which go unchallenged by individuals, states, or corporations. Europe is unrecognizable, since most of its countries have become quasi-socialist "People's States." This is a world in which salvation arrives in the form of a reclusive engineer who is begged to "save the economy."

In other words, the geo-political world in which Rand wants us to admire her heroes is not our own, or even (like that of 1984) a plausible, allegorical variant of our own, but a third-rate science fiction dystopian future, complete with imaginary technology, which, by definition, makes comparison to today's world impossible. The U.S. of Atlas Shrugged is about as real and realistic as Narnia, and capitalism is to Atlas Shrugged what Quidditch is to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: a fictional construct, vaguely similar to something we have in real life, used for purposes of drama and entertainment.

And, as it is with the outer world, so it is with the inner.

The novel is jam-packed with characters, of whom John Galt is just one, who openly, endlessly, and bombastically rail against those-who-say-that-man-has-no-mind, or those-who-claim-that-Man-is-an-irrational-animal. E.g., from Galt's Big Speech: "Man does not live by the mind, you say?... The mind is impotent, you say?"

Actually, no, John. Nobody says that. Nobody -- not even B.F. Skinner, whose operant conditioning model of human behavior was fashionable when Atlas was published in 1957, and who could reasonably be looked to as a source of skepticism about "consciousness" -- says that the mind is impotent.

Eventually it gets comical, and you want to look up from the acres of speechifying and ask a passerby, "Wait -- this Ayn Rand gal. Who is she talking about?"

People -- let us call them "Randroids" because that is what they are -- who eagerly point to "striking similarities" between the world of Atlas Shrugged and our own; who trade smug little emoticons and we-happy-few winks with each other over Rand's "prescience;" who find this ludicrous monstrosity "increasingly relevant to life today" -- these people are either nuts, stupid, or kidding themselves. Even Trekkies (do they still call themselves that?) who go to conventions in costume and speak fucking Klingon know that it's make believe.

This, then, is what I learned: that the followers of Ayn Rand comprise neither a political movement nor a philosophical school, but a religious cult. And, with the recent release of the movie (ostensibly Part I of three; as the actress said to the bishop, "good luck with that"), they're coming out of the woodwork.

So I wrote the parody. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, yes. But somebody has to shoot them.

 
 
 

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