It’s been a fascinating year for late-flowering publications, with both Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” and Ayn Rand’s hitherto-unpublished novel “Ideal” hitting bookstore shelves. As a longtime appreciator of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” “Ideal” unquestionably belonged on my summer reading list.
“Ideal” is an uncharacteristically dreamy novel for Rand, taking place over the span of a single night. Actress Kay Gonda (who may or may not have committed a murder) drifts from house to house of those who have written her fan letters. These fans include a family man in a middle-management role, a manic priest watching his congregation implode, a lecherous aristocrat, and a young burnout, among others. Each of these individuals responds to her presence differently: at bottom, she exposes the inadequacies of their lives and their respective failures to pursue higher things. Whether or not Gonda is actually a human being – or rather merely symbolic of her admirers’ craving for sublimity – is a question that lingers after the final page is turned.
In “Ideal,” as in “Anthem,” one truth remains persistently clear: this is a parable, not a serious attempt to depict true-to-life circumstances. Indeed, the narrative structure and motifs evoke biblical imagery – the angels’ visit to Sodom, the spies in Rahab’s house at Jericho, and the parable of the ten virgins, among others. None of Rand’s books are meant to be read as realistic fiction, and “Ideal” is no exception”; that’s not to say, though, that it isn’t oddly compelling in its own way. The surrealism of “Ideal” is a radical shift away from the plot-heavy structure of Rand’s later work, but here it works as an asset: Rand’s much-derided didactic cudgel isn’t on display here (at least relative to subsequent books). “Ideal” systematically changes up its mise en scène, displaying hints of the stage play it would later become, but remains engaging throughout its short length.
It’s been several years since I sat down with a Rand novel, and in that time I’ve read a great deal of criticism of her work (much of it coming from thinkers I respect). I submit, however, that many of these rebuttals are but surface-level criticisms of her novels’ more cringeworthy moments (and there are plenty). Not many engage with the very real reason her novels have remained popular for so long – their vigorous affirmation of a life not only suffused with meaning, but also with purpose. Chiefly, Rand advances a vision of the human person that transcends materialistic nihilism. You were meant for more, her novels tell the reader. Create. Experiment. Risk. This fiercely burning moral directive is compelling on a deep psychosocial level – much more so when juxtaposed against the postmodern ennui of other writers. (As a side note, the persistent affirmation of this transcultural, transpersonal imperative is staggeringly inconsistent with Rand’s claim that man is both the source and end of value. Why can a man not electively assert his autonomy to embrace an apathetic/misanthropic lifestyle? Rand never says.). “Greed is good” is far too simplistic an assessment of the ethical philosophy at play here (and indeed, the profit motive is almost wholly absent from “Ideal”); to its credit, “Ideal” doesn’t attempt to make a case for Objectivist ethics. Instead, this short novel simply hints and suggests, operating more from inference than from pitiless ideology.
Rand’s attacks on the trappings of religion, as in “Atlas Shrugged,” remain on full display here. Her view is an unfortunately myopic one: Rand’s understanding of religion exclusively stresses the debasing of the human person, but ignores any doctrines regarding the glory of the imago Dei (as reflected in the human capacity for creativity). Accordingly, her depictions of religiosity evidence a deeply Gnostic caricaturization: here, there is a slavish and penitential degradation, but no accompanying sanctification or glorification.
So is “Ideal” worth reading? For starters, Rand aficionados owe it to themselves to pick up a copy. Where more general audiences are concerned, this recommendation still holds: like “We the Living,” “Ideal” might actually prove a pleasant surprise for those whose only encounters with Rand’s work have come through dust-ups with insufferable “Atlas Shrugged” acolytes. The seeds of Rand’s controversial philosophy are certainly present, but here they don’t flower into anything overtly questionable. “Ideal” raises more teleological questions than it answers – and its reticence to pontificate is, in fact, its greatest asset.
“Ideal” won’t convert Rand’s critics, but in the tradition of “Anthem,” it’s a surprisingly accessible parable.