Sunday, July 26, 2009

We The Living

As I'm sure I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Ayn Rand's works. I find her writing fascinating and thought provoking; it strengthens my worldview to read hers and observe the contrast between them, and makes me consider where mine might be weak when I find myself agreeing with her, even in the slightest. In most of her works I appreciate her writing style so much, and she manages to capture my attention for hundreds of pages, which fly by almost without my notice.

I first read Atlas Shrugged as a challenge to myself in recognizing the worldview of an author. Looking back, I find it interesting that I used her masterpiece as the subject for my experiment. Really, I just picked something random that I had never read before. I'd have to say, though, that reading Atlas Shrugged has changed the way I see some things, based both on the book and my experiment. It was an eye opening experience and I am glad I read it. From there I went on to read Anthem and The Fountainhead. The latter I enjoyed. The former seemed more like a retelling of the legend of Prometheus. I believe it was after reading Anthem that I felt the need to do more research on the author, as she seemed obsessed  with societies that were turning to ruin and her heroes were those who would make society better through innovation and change, but were not allowed to and ostracized for their attempt. It turns out that Ayn Rand comes from Soviet Russia, and that background plays quite the role in her belief system and her philosophies. A basic summary of her philosophy of Objectivism would be "the virtue of selfishness." Her writings are full of this ideal, and it is interesting to see how clearly her villains are the altruists and her heroes the selfish. I don't remember the exact setting for Anthem, but Altas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are set outside of Russia, so it took some reading to trace the thematic roots back to the USSR.

This summer I came across a copy of We The Living at a garage sale for 25 cents. It was one of hers I hadn't read before and a cheap book, so I picked it up. I brought it with me to Texas and read it on the airplane and in the car and just finished it today. We The Living is Ayn Rand's first book, and she claimed it was the closest thing to an autobiography she would ever write. It was interesting to see how different her writing style was in the earlier days. Her chapters were choppy and broken, and paragraphs seemed to end before they were finished. While this does add something to the feel of this particular story, I'm glad it isn't a style she carried on into her later works. I enjoyed most of the story, though some of her expository sections got a little long and needlessly detailed. I found myself skimming paragraphs every so often and there were only two or three I felt the need to go back and read to understand what followed. It took some time before I felt the story pick up speed, which was a problem I remember encountering with The Fountainhead as well. As with her later works, We The Living has a protagonist who was bent on engineering. I have yet to research what that connection to Ayn Rand is, but I'm sure there must be one. I don't know that she was an engineer, but perhaps she was. Or perhaps she had an unfulfilled dream to be one. Either way, this one was like the others in that respect.

Aside from her writing style, I felt like most of this story was similar in thought and tone to her later works, at least until the end. This one differed strikingly, though, in setting. We The Living is actually set in Russia, at the beginning of the Communistic era. It gives a lot of insight into the author, and perhaps would have been a good work to start with. I have a feeling, though, that I would not have continued reading her work if I had begun with her first. I would consider most of the stories I've read by Ayn Rand to be comedies. Not because they are necessarily humorous, but because they end in triumph, in reunion, or in a marriage of sorts (though never actual marriage, because I'm fairly certain Ms. Rand was vehemently against marriage, based on her life and works), We The Living, on  the contrary, is a tragedy, clothes in the apparel of a comedy. It reads like a comedy until about the last 20 pages, when the whole story unravels and the stage is littered with bodies. I was really looking for a happy ending, but when I reached the end  of the book what I was handed was a funeral dirge in a major key. Honestly, it just felt wrong. Instead of the promised hope, I was handed depression and told to take it with a smile, because the heroine's life had once held potential.

If you love Ayn Rand's work and you've read several of her others already, go ahead and read We The Living, but don't expect it to be satisfying. It is far too transparent and blunt to provide the layers of thought provoking material I had become accustomed to, though it did give me a clearer picture of the author and her background. If you've been looking to read something by Rand and think that starting at the beginning is the way to go, don't. Start with her best work (Atlas Shrugged) or her most well-known work (The Fountainhead), but don't start at the beginning or I fear you'll never work your way to what is actually worth reading. View this book as a stepping stone, a blip in history that helped make her the author she eventually became. 

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