The New York Times ran a review of one of the new Ayn Rand biographies last week, and just like that, Bam! I was back in high school.
I had two best friends in eleventh grade--Kay and Carla. They were both stunningly beautiful--one had shimmering blond hip-length hair and huge blue eyes, and the other had shimmering dark brown hip-length hair and huge dark eyes. They were intelligent and highly intellectual and I felt awed and honored that they included me in their sophisticated conversations about Nietzsche (who I frantically tried to understand) and religion.
And then one day they started talking about someone named Ayn Rand. Rand wrote books that had titles like "The Virtue of Selfishness" and "Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal," so that gives you a good idea of her outlook on life.
She also wrote big thick potboiler novels that set her philosophy into motion. "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" were about what she called the "heroes"--fabulously gorgeous, brilliant men and women who lived on a higher plane than the rest of us, who worked passionately only to fulfill their own dreams and make themselves happy. Rand believed that selfishness, applied this way, was what would keep the world progressing--that man works hardest and most honestly when he works for himself, and himself alone. There was no room in her philosophy for empathy or compassion, and no room among the heroes for the weak, the aging, the infirm, or, really, the friendly. (Those people she called "the looters.")
Kay and Carla were deeply influenced by her books. If you look at Rand's life, you can understand her abhorrence for anything done for the collective good--she grew up in Russia and was a young teen during the Bolshevik Revolution. Her father's thriving business was taken over by the state and she and her family were forced from their home and into a small apartment that they shared with strangers.
It must have been awful. So I can understand her viewpoint. But for happy, healthy 16-year-old girls from Duluth? To embrace wholeheartedly such a cold philosophy? A little harder to see. Except for the fact that Rand's books were so romantic; it was easy to get swept away with the beauty and riches and superiority and sex sex sex of the incredibly perfect main characters.
Kay and Carla allowed me to listen to their talks about Rand for some time before they solemnly handed over one of her books. I knew this was a test: I was to read "Atlas Shrugged" and report back to them. This was unnerving. I knew my fate was on the line, and I worried I would not measure up.
"Atlas Shrugged" is about the day when all of the heroes of the world go on strike, and the world, left to the inferior looters, grinds to a halt. It is a very long book, and if it weren't for the fabulously steamy sex scenes that livened it up for my innocent 16-year-old eyes, I might not have made it through. Rand wanted to make sure that readers understood her philosophy, and so she hammered it, over and over and over, and just when you wanted to scream "I get it! It's not that complicated!" she stops all action for fifty pages and allows the main character to give a speech that sets it all out again.
I finished the book and wondered what I would tell my friends. Iwondered if they would still be my friends once we had had the talk.
Kay invited me to her house on a Saturday afternoon. Carla was there, too. They sat on the patio in deck chairs, their long glossy hair gleaming in the sun. I scratched my poodle head and shoved my glasses back up my nose. (Of course neither of them wore glasses; heroes, apparently, have 20-20 vision.)
They asked my assessment and then coolly watched and waited while I sweated.
I stumbled out a few things about how brilliant it was and how great it was and what a fabulous read, but, um, it was a bit long, wasn't it, and somewhat repetitive?
Kay and Carla glanced at each other and I was filled with dread; I knew I was doomed.
There were a few ominous moments of silence, and then Kay spoke. "I didn't think there was a superfluous word in the entire book," she said. She and Carla got up and walked into the house and shut the door.
And that was it. Friendless.