ANTHEM by Ayn Rand

There’s no denying Ayn Rand’s staying power. About twelve years ago, I decided I ought to read some of her work since I was hearing so much about it. Today, there doesn’t seem to have been any decline in her popularity. My theory, based on this book, is that her success is primarily about the appeal of her philosophy. It certainly doesn’t have much to do with literary merit. I have rarely read such a sloppy, unappealing and ridiculously simplistic work of fiction. There is no style. There is no plot worth talking about. After reading about a page, I knew everything that was going to happen. The “characters” are nothing but ideological stick-figures. They do nothing, say nothing, think nothing that is not calculated to prove Rand’s theories. I have seen half-hour episodes of sitcoms that show more insight and nuance. Quite a few actually. All this novella really has is an idea. If you think (like me) it’s an interesting one, read Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron.” I’m not even a Vonnegut devotee but there are galaxies between his writing ability and Rand’s.  Anthem only exists to promote Rand’s beliefs.
Of course, one might reasonably ask what’s wrong with that. Obviously, I can only explain what I believe. For me, part of the essence of literature is ambiguity. It’s not that an author can’t have passionate beliefs. However, crafting literature involves a degree of understanding of and sympathy for human beings. No matter how strongly we believe something, only a fanatic wouldn’t admit that sometimes beliefs and theories don’t explain everything in the complicated, messy world of people. In my opinion, some reflection of this melancholy knowledge is necessary before a piece of writing can become true literature. Nowhere in Anthem does Ayn Rand show even a hint of that knowledge. This book is really a religious document. Its purpose is merely to expound upon settled doctrine for the pleasure of the faithful and the conversion of the unbeliever. On these terms, I suppose Anthem succeeds but that doesn’t make me like it.   

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