June 14, 2011
Photo credit: Wah-Ming Chang.
On April 15, 2011, almost thirty years after Ayn Rand’s death in 1982, Atlas Shrugged opened in theatres around the country. The movie is based on Rand’s bestselling dystopian novel of the same name, a literary vehicle expressing her trademark worldview: the morality of rational self-interest, or, “Objectivism.” It was financed by a wealthy devotee of Ayn Rand’s work, and marketed aggressively to the Tea Party demographic by FreedomWorks, one of the prime movers in the Tea Party movement, which engaged in a massive campaign to encourage audience attendance, and to push the film into as many theaters as possible. The opening line of Atlas Shrugged — “Who is John Galt?” — has appeared on signs at Tea Party protests across America. Glenn Beck praises Atlas Shrugged regularly, and hosted a panel discussion dedicated to asking if Rand’s fiction is finally becoming reality. Once a shadowy cult presence in the margins of American life, Ayn Rand is now one of the central intellectual and cultural inspirations for the base of the Republican Party.
Mary Gaitskill published a novel called Two Girls, Fat and Thin in 1991. The novel featured a thinly disguised Rand character, Anna Granite, and her philosophy of “Definitism.” Like the character Justine in her novel, Gaitskill had actually interviewed followers of Ayn Rand.
It seemed an opportune time to ask Mary Gaitskill, what is it about Ayn Rand, and why is she still here? What inspired her to write about Ayn Rand? And some other questions. She graciously consented to an interview.
When did you first encounter Ayn Rand’s books, and what were your initial impressions?
I read “Anthem” when I was 15 and at that time was not interested enough to read anything else.I got interested when I was 28 and realized that there were actually groups of people trying to live their lives according to the ideas expressed by characters in Rand’s novels.I found that fascinating and pretty much read everything.I wanted to write an article about it, so I also interviewed people.
When did you realize you wanted to write a novel that engaged in some way with Rand’s philosophy, and how did your conception of Two Girls, Fat and Thin change over time? Did you see it from the start as a satire?
I’ve heard it said about satire, that for it to work, the satirist has to have some sort of secret love or empathy for the thing she’s satirizing.That’s probably true, but I didn’t start out thinking in terms of satire.I felt it poignant and weirdly moving that people wanted to base their lives on the deeds and opinions of fictional characters.Especially since these characters were created by someone so sternly and humorlessly purporting to represent objective reality and rationality; I can think of few things less rational or realistic than trying to imitate made-up people.Yet I didn’t have the impulse to just mock it because it came out of an idealistic impulse plus need.Also what these people were doing seemed just a more extreme version of something a lot of people, maybe everybody, does: cobbling together a sense of self or purpose through a combination of ideal and fantasy that gets superimposed over actual experience, and which can seem real, or at least non-nutty if enough people are buying into it.And shared fantasies, like the kind pop culture or fashion create naturally, do have elements of reality that get bigger the more people are acting like its real.That is part of the irony of Rand’s appeal; supposedly she was a pure individualist, and the kind of phenomenon I just described is by nature collective.
In terms of the novel, to me it was more about people grappling with a kind of mirage which they could unknowingly turn this way or that to suit their needs and nightmares—or their nightmare needs.
What do you recall today about these interviews and these people?
That I liked them.I thought most of them were idealistic people who were longing for something beautiful and moral in their lives.They weren’t what most people would consider selfish, they were considerate and communicative.The exception was one of the old-guard hardliners, one of the original “heirs.”He was a real pill, small-minded and just plain nasty.
How deeply are Ayn Rand’s ideas embedded in the American psyche?
I think they are embedded deeply in the human psyche.Maybe it’s more meaningful or apparent in America because of capitalism, but I think what she did was discuss pretty basic questions of self and how the self exists in relation to the group in a language that the layperson could understand.What is selfishness, what is it to love selflessly, is that possible, or even really desirable?That isn’t a little question, its huge in everybody’s life.It’s also developmental.I remember when I was talking a long time ago with a very intelligent mother about Rand, and she said (paraphrasing), she sounds like a kid who was never allowed to fully have what was hers.If you don’t allow a kid to have his toy and feel that it’s totally his, that he can have what he wants and needs, but force him to share too soon, he will be furious because he’s not ready.That sounds condescending, I guess it is, but it made sense to me.Rand grew up in Soviet Russia where people really were forced to share on an epic scale, in an insane way that had nothing to do with morality, though it pretended to.Then there’s the whole strength/weakness question—crude and huge for everybody.People are terrified of being weak or being perceived that way, which is probably why helplessness and power are eroticized globally.Again, she took something very basic and of concern for everybody and treated it in pop culture fashion, romance novel plus ideas.
Also, it’s got a great emotional irrational pull: here is a middle-aged woman—in other wordsMOM– telling you it’s okay to be selfish, that it actually means you are good!Did you read the short piece Mark Sanford did in Newsweek maybe last year?He gave Rand a lot of very adoring play in that piece, at the same time that he name-checked the Bible.Here is a guy who grew up religious, probably sincerely so, actually principled or tried to be, and then got hit upside the head not merely with lust, but love.I know, he’s a swine, but still I felt for him.Suddenly, the poor guy’s brains are melting out his ears, he’s publicly gibbering!He’s no match for it, has no experience with it, can’t square it with anything he thinks he believes—thank God there is Mom telling him it’s okay, better than okay, actually moral.Frankly I understand, its someone speaking his language who is able to acknowledge his feelings in a way that makes sense in his universe, and when one’s brains are melting out one’s ears, one wants there to be sense.Of course, as a proud individualist, he had no problem with using collective money and I know Rand would not have endorsed that.But those kinds of details get lost when the roaring emotional current is power and the titanic self.
By the way, you know, don’t you, that Alan Greenspan was a devotee of Rand?A card-carrying Objectivist?
Like the character Justine in Two Girls, who interviewed followers of “Anna Granite,” you actually interviewed followers of Ayn Rand. Like Justine, you tried (and failed) to sell an essay based on these interviews. To what extent did you identify with your character Justine, and more generally, which of the characters in your stories and novels do you feel closest to (if any).
If you are asking which of my characters are based on me, I’ll take the fifth.It’s funny that people often assumed that Justine was based on me.If anything, its Dorothy; c’est moi!By which I do not mean to hint that I’m an incest victim!Do you know who Edgar Rice Burroughs is?He wrote the Tarzan books.When I did a reading in Lexington, where my parents were living, some reporter called my father and asked how he felt that I’d written a book in the first person from the point of view of a character who’d been raped by her father.My father replied “Do you think Edgar Rice Burroughs was raised by apes?”
How would you characterize Ayn Rand’s writing about sex and love, and to what extent did Rand’s ideas influence these themes in Two Girls?
I would characterize her writing about sex as wooden.About love, she writes like a teenager, romantic but unreal, like someone who’s living in a fantasy and doesn’t know it.Her ideas on these subjects had zero influence on me because they had so little reality about them.
Writers frequently find it difficult to write about sex, and sex scenes in particular. Yet nearly every writer I know admires your work in this regard.
That’s nice to know.
The other day I was joking with a friend that what Tolstoy really meant to say in the opening line of Anna Karenina was, “All good sex is alike, but bad sex has a thousand faces.” Is it easier to write about bad sex than good sex?
I find writing about everything hard.When I’m writing any kind of scene, I’m not thinking in terms of good or bad, I’m thinking how to best render whatever it is.Later I might think good or bad, but not while I’m writing.I don’t by the way think that all good sex is alike, and I’m glad, it would really be boring if it were!
Two Girls was your first novel. Coming off the success of Bad Behavior, a story collection, did you feel pressure to write a novel? Thinking back to the critical reception of Two Girls, do you think that the novel was understood and appreciated? What did you learn about yourself as a writer, a novelist, and a person, in the writing of this book?
From what I can recall of the reviews, it seemed like almost nobody realized that Two Girls is funny.I mean, it’s not only funny, it does depict some very unfunny situations.But dark humor is a big part of it—it describes the ordinary world as a comically demented place, which in my vision, it is.Shortly after the book came out I got a piece of spluttering hate mail from some guy who said the book was like Mad Magazine’s Cunt Finger; he did not mean this as a compliment, but I thought, wow, if I’ve really written something like that I’ve done great!
Any thoughts on the renewed interest in Ayn Rand among the Tea Party crowd ?
My thoughts about Rand in politics are similar to my thoughts about Sarah Palin in politics.When Palin was first picked as John McCain’s running mate, I remember talking to a couple of male students who thought she was really sexy.I thought she was too, in a horrible way.My first reaction to seeing her on TV was that this woman is a sadist and she doesn’t know it.I’m not joking, her voice was just dripping with cruelty; when I heard it, the hair on the back on my neck literally stood up.If that’s what rings your bell, by all means have at it, but in the privacy of the home!Don’t put it in the White House and call it something else!I’m not saying Ayn Rand was a sadist, I’m saying that what works in the realm of the imagination, private fantasy, art, even cheesy art, does not belong in the practical world of politics.Objectivism is almost faith-based, like areligion.I believe in God, and I also believe in separation of church and state.But the Tea Party doesn’t want that either, does it?
What can you tell us about what your current writing project?
That I’m hopelessly floundering.That I’m working on two novels, one about a crazy middle-aged woman and another about a fucked up young girl and a fucked up horse.Actually there’s a fucked up middle-aged woman in that one too.
Mary Gaitskill is also the author of Don’t Cry, Veronica, Because They Wanted To (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award) and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. Veronica was nominated for the National Book Award. Gaitskill is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in New York.