How little you have to do to get into the feature well of a slick magazine these days. Thomas Mallon's takedown of Ayn Rand in The New Yorker is not online, but it is so phoned-in and lacking in protein that even this synopsis of the article feels padded.
There's 1943-vintage prissy caviling about Rand's writing style. ("It is, in fact, badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization.") There's 1957-vintage hyperventilating about the author-as-dictator. ("[T]he narrative voice of this implacably anti-Communist author is a bellows of Stalinist bad breath.") There is much guilt by association. (Mallon treats Alan Greenspan's distancing himself from Rand as an indictment of Rand rather than of Greenspan.)
But there is no attempt to engage the material or address its continuing popularity. Kurt Vonnegut, in most ways the anti-Rand, said a person who attacks a book is like a person who puts on armor to attack a banana split. Mallon's war on Rand's heterodoxies leads to some unintentionally interesting dead ends. When he declares that Rand's fiction belongs "in the crackpot pantheon of L. Frank Baum" and "is no closer to the canon of serious American novels than Galt's Gulch is to Brook Farm," is Mallon implying that there's some canon of American lit in which The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not taken seriously, at least as a book with plenty of historical and sociological interest?
Mallon condemns as typically Randian overwriting the following passage, which describes The Fountainhead protagonist Howard Roark using a blowtorch: "it seemed as if the blue tension eating slowly through metal came not from the flame but from the hand holding it." Had Mallon been willing to venture an original opinion, he might have been able to make something out of this. King Vidor's adaptation of The Fountainhead is a completely entertaining movie, and as this nicely composed shot indicates, part of the movie's success lay in Vidor's finding ways to translate Rand's purple descriptions into interesting images:
Though the tool and the scene differ from the above passage, the movie works very hard to take Rand's evocation of modernist architecture, strong/silent males, and glamorous blondes completely seriously. If you're writing an assessment of Rand's enduring popularity, you'd at least want to take into account the interplay between style and philosophy -- an area in which Rand is remarkably similar to her contemporaries the Existentialists, who were loved at the time and are remembered today as much for their cigarettes and leather jackets as for anything they had to say about the relationship of existence and essence.
"Rand may be," Mallon continues, "in an aesthetic sense, the most totalitarian novelist ever to have sat down at a desk." It's worth remembering that there were, in fact, real totalitarian novelists: Fyodor Gladkov and many others for the Soviet Union, Kurt Eggers, Hans Baumann and a few others for Nazi Germany. They wrote actual, approved propaganda and curried artistic favor with their respective dictator/critics.
But by talking about the "aesthetic sense," Mallon may be moving toward a legitimate insight. Jean-Luc Godard criticized Steven Spielberg along the same lines, saying, "He gives you an emotional situation, then tells you how you have to respond to it." The difference is that Spielberg's post-1990 output has mostly been aimed at justifying establishment opinion. (You can't go wrong saying World War II veterans were brave, the Holocaust was horrible, and the Arab-Israeli conflict is complex.) Mallon may believe that Rand's propaganda merely aimed to flatter Americans' belief in themselves as rugged individualists, but he doesn't say so. In any event, the messages Rand was sending were very much at odds with the views of mid-century political scientists, literary dons, and most other keepers of establishment opinion. If she's a totalitarian, who's the Maximum Leader?
All interesting questions. Unfortunately, Mallon doesn't want to ask them. His purpose is to tell you Ayn Rand's books aren't worth reading, which is not particularly daring, given that this view of Rand is still widely shared among middlebrow thinkers. But it's a weird goal for a writer to have. You might even call it totalitarian.