Sing it, sister!

*(Because I feel that I did­n’t have much to say about this nov­el, it has sin­gle­hand­ed­ly stalled all the reports for the books I’ve read since. So please for­give the cur­so­ry glance. There are oth­er books I actu­al­ly want to say some­thing about.)*

Ayn Rand’s novel­la *Anthem* is a quick read. By my esti­mate the book comes in around 26,000 words. 

Don’t expect char­ac­ter devel­op­ment. Not real­ly. Although the sto­ry is about a per­son dis­cov­er­ing his own per­son­hood in the world of the dis­tant future where indi­vid­u­al­i­ty has been all but elim­i­nat­ed, that indi­vid­u­al­i­ty is nev­er well expressed. Our nar­ra­tor, Equal­i­ty 7 – 2521, began as a curi­ous and ashamed child, though pre­sum­ably one in an adult’s body. By the end when he has rein­vent­ed the con­cept of self, the read­er is not much clos­er to know­ing who that self actu­al­ly is than at the begin­ning. There is char­ac­ter *trans­for­ma­tion*, but no char­ac­ter *devel­op­ment*.

I sup­pose that expect­ing more depth here is unre­al­is­tic. Rand, as usu­al, was not writ­ing a sto­ry so much as writ­ing a fable. She did this in her more well-known books *The Foun­tain­head* and *Atlas Shrugged*. We might care about the ideas, but nev­er the char­ac­ters. There’s ample evi­dence that this is exact­ly what she meant. Rand did­n’t care if we liked or dis­liked Dag­ny Tag­gart, she did­n’t even want us to iden­ti­fy with her as the pro­tag­o­nist. She told her sto­ries from a dis­tant per­spec­tive, as is fit­ting for a woman who described her­self with the self-coined label *Objec­tivist*.

This becomes both prob­lem­at­ic and pow­er­ful in *Anthem*. Here is a sto­ry told in the first per­son, pre­sum­ably writ­ten by the pro­tag­o­nist. Yet the per­spec­tive Rand wants us to have is an objec­tive one. The result is a sto­ry that feels con­trived and inauthentic.

How­ev­er, per­haps by acci­dent, this sup­ports the alle­go­ry and her the­sis. Though the sto­ry of Equal­i­ty 7 – 2521 is told from his per­spec­tive in the first per­son, it is almost entire­ly told in the first per­son plur­al, illus­trat­ing that this point in the future is one where the idea of the val­ue of the indi­vid­ual is so sup­pressed that chil­dren don’t even learn the lan­guage for the first per­son sin­gu­lar. That Equal­i­ty 7 – 2521 does­n’t seem to be a well-defined indi­vid­ual could be seen as the result of his cul­ture’s active dis­cour­ag­ing of any attrib­ut­es of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. I’d like to believe that and choose to inter­pret it that way, but have trou­ble believ­ing that the flat­ness of Equal­i­ty 7 – 2521’s char­ac­ter was intend­ed to be part of the allegory.

Trou­bling also is the sense, too often part of the expe­ri­ence of read­ing Ayn Rand, that one is read­ing a straw man argu­ment. There are some­times-sub­tle dis­tinc­tions between tak­ing an idea to a log­i­cal extreme to illus­trate where that idea could lead and asso­ci­at­ing a cur­rent set of ideas with its car­i­ca­ture. It’s one thing to show where a path might lead; quite anoth­er to con­demn the start­ing point for its asso­ci­a­tion with pos­si­bil­i­ties one has only speculated.

So if Rand has giv­en us a fable about the trap at the bot­tom of the slip­pery slope with *Anthem* it rings a bit hol­low. Her vision of a world with­out indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ty is chill­ing, but we have lit­tle but her asser­tion that her alle­go­ry is an accu­rate pic­ture of the future that awaits should we not heed her warning.