The New Yorker:
In a dark corner of my house, where a built-in bookshelf curves out of sight and out of reach, near the ceiling, I keep a couple dozen books that I haven’t brought myself to get rid of but don’t want anyone to see. It’s a connoisseur’s collection of the writing of Ayn Rand and her disciples, assembled by teen-age me a long, long time ago. My first girlfriend, an older woman in her early twenties, introduced me to Rand. I had recently immigrated to the United States from Russia, come out, and dropped out of high school, and somehow Rand’s writing spoke to me, made the world appear simple and conquerable. My Rand phase was relatively brief, but, before it ended, I bluffed my way into my first job in publishing by talking Rand with my future boss, a trailblazing gay publisher who was similarly obsessed with her.
According to a new book, this is normal, sort of. In “Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed,” Lisa Duggan, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, notes that, although Rand’s brand of sexual liberation didn’t extend to homosexuality, her female heroines refuse to conform to feminine norms, and her male heroes are all in love with one another. I was certainly not the only queer teen-ager who was seduced by these books, which Duggan calls “conversion machines that run on lust.” The therapeutic value of Duggan’s book goes well beyond freeing me from shame for my teen-age lack of literary taste and political discernment; it also provides an explanation for our current cultural and political moment.
Part of American Studies Now, a series of slim volumes published by the University of California Press, Duggan’s book sums up Rand’s life and philosophy in under ninety pages—an affront to a novelist whose magnum opus, “Atlas Shrugged,” came in at more than ten times that length. “How could a thousand-plus-page novel, featuring cartoonish characters moving through a melodramatic plot peppered with long didactic speeches, attract so many readers and so much attention?” Duggan asks. “Clearly, the fantasies animating the novel struck a deep chord.”
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