Is liking Ayn Rand a personality defect? Before she was the godmother of American libertarianism, Rand was a writer known for insisting on the virtue and beauty of self-interest. To her admirers, her books, including “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” celebrate exceptional men and women who make their own flourishing a moral imperative. To her detractors, Rand’s novels, as Lisa Duggan writes in her 2019 study “Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed,” glamorize rapacity and violence; they grant happy endings to characters who showcase “contempt for lesser beings and a cool indifference to their suffering”; and they “provide a structure of feeling—optimistic cruelty—that . . . underwrites the form of capitalism on steroids that dominates the present.”
Since Rand’s death, in 1982, she has been embraced by tech billionaires (Peter Thiel, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk), free-market politicians (Ronald Reagan, Clarence Thomas, Rand Paul), and their acolytes. Elsewhere, she has become a pop-cultural bogeyman, ridiculous but unkillable. Find her on “The Simpsons” (“Russian weirdo Ayn Rand”), “Parks and Recreation” (“a terrible writer”), “Girls,” “Watchmen,” and “The Mindy Project,” invariably dressed as a menace or a punch line. The presence of “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead” on a bedside table or Tinder profile is a waving red flag—reliable shorthand for latent sociopathy. A friend, in order to lend me a copy of “Atlas Shrugged” for this piece, stowed the paperback in a manila folder that she then stapled shut and handed off to my partner at their mutual workplace. He smuggled it down the hall and into his bag. “I didn’t think I’d get fired” if anyone saw the book, he explained, “but it wouldn’t look great.”
In “The Book of Ayn,” a novel by Lexi Freiman, Rand takes on a new role: North Star for the cancelled. Anna, a mid-career writer who comes from money, has just published a “contrarian” novel about the opioid epidemic, a satire of the rural poor full of “bad haircuts,” “misspelled tattoos,” and pants-shitting. “I had honestly believed I was writing a book so good it metabolized its own badness,” Anna explains, somewhat touchingly. Instead of the acclaim she expects, Anna gets dropped by her publisher and ghosted by her friends; even her old prep school rejects a last-ditch job application. On Twitter, she is enjoined to jump off the balcony of her pied-à-terre on Madison Avenue and to use her novel as a parachute.
Worst of all, a review in the New York Times suggests that Anna is that current-day bête noire, a “narcissist.” Devastated, Anna borrows a friend’s book on narcissism and reads that narcissists are “selfish, arrogant, and insecure,” “grandiose and fragile and incapable of handling any threat to their identity,” and that they “saw themselves reflected back everywhere, made grand narratives of their lives, but felt at their core that they were empty.”
To Anna’s horror, the descriptions remind her of herself. She is empty, she realizes. She doesn’t believe in anything; all she can do is make fun of people. Seeking a counternarrative, Anna gloms on to a tour group discussing Ayn Rand in a coffee shop and, soon after, orders a bundle of her works. She’s immediately enthralled. The books argue that “selfishness was a form of care” and that “wealth was a beautiful thing.” They claim that “true freedom lived . . . in the breaking of bonds and severing of ties.” As Anna reads, she feels her weaknesses becoming strengths. Her selfishness, she realizes, is radically ethical. She may not get invited to parties anymore, but she wouldn’t enjoy them anyway—she’s too radiantly liberated.
In “The Culture of Narcissism,” his famous 1979 study, Christopher Lasch writes that the narcissist can only overcome insecurity “by seeing his ‘grandiose self’ reflected in the attentions of others.” Freiman slyly casts Rand as Anna’s “grandiose self,” the mask she pulls on over her pain and vulnerability. Anna, you might say, has suffered a narcissistic injury and is turning to Rand to preserve her positive self-image.
An elderly millennial in the shitposting era, Anna shrouds her new obsession in layers of self-protective irony. Rand’s ideas give her solace, and being a “ ‘Randgirl,’ ” in scare quotes, appeals to her contrarianism, her desire to provoke and outrage the commenters who want her to jump off a balcony. When Rand was in her late thirties, she moved from New York to Hollywood to write for the big screen. Anna decides to follow in her footsteps. She decamps for Los Angeles and reinvents herself as a television writer, pitching a sitcom, inspired by “Bojack Horseman” (although she swears it’s not), about a farm animal named Ayn Ram. Even as Anna hopes to rehabilitate her hero for a contemporary audience, she places some distance between herself and her subject by wrapping Rand in the soft wool of humor—a defense mechanism that Freiman suggests originates in a tragedy in her early life. When Anna was three, her infant brother died “for no reason” in his sleep. Provocation “smoothed the edges,” she says, a fleece that muffled the sharpness of loss.
With its undercurrent of childhood trauma, “The Book of Ayn” evokes Mary Gaitskill’s classic treatment of the Randgirl plot, “Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” from 1991. That book’s narrator, Dorothy, imprints on a Rand-like character named Anna Granite after being abused and molested by her father as a teen-ager. “By the time I was seventeen, I had a very negative view of life, and a horrific view of sex,” Dorothy tells Justine, a journalist writing an article on Granite and her fans. When she discovered Granite’s books, Dorothy says, “suddenly a whole different way of looking at life was presented to me.” Ostracized at school, she draws comfort from Granite’s depictions of “proud outcasts . . . surrounded by the cold glow of their genius and grace.” In bed with her father, she clings to a dream of “strong, contemptuous beauty . . . indifferent to anything but itself and its own growth.” Dorothy comes to believe in a philosophy called Definitism—Gaitskill’s thinly veiled version of Objectivism, the doctrine developed by Rand—and it confers on Dorothy the power and value that she believes herself to lack; Granite herself seems to nurture the girl in loco parentis. As a college student, Dorothy buys an interstate bus ticket to attend one of Granite’s speaking events and imagines her idol, how “she would look at me and know everything I’d endured.” At the lecture, she weeps uncontrollably, convinced at last that she is “damn strong,” that she is “worth something.”
“The Book of Ayn” and “Two Girls, Fat and Thin” plead for sympathy for the Randgirl. Like Freiman’s Anna, Gaitskill’s Dorothy is a case study in vulnerable narcissism and, ultimately, a figure of pity. She retreats from the world and into daydreams about Oz and Never-Never Land, epic tales in which she plays the hero. She hides behind delusions of grandeur, raging when Justine asks her “stupid” questions. These are broken people to be handled with gentleness, the novels seem to argue.
But, in fact, both books have a more subversive intent: to trouble the distinction between Randians and everyone else. In “Two Girls, Fat and Thin,” Justine, the freelance journalist who interviews Dorothy, is disgusted by Granite’s ideas. She’s identified as “neurotic” and Dorothy is not; the contrast between them conjures Freud’s dichotomy between pliable patients who obediently adopt the terminology of their analysts and difficult patients who prove too self-absorbed to undergo transference. But Justine, who, unlike Dorothy, is pretty, thin, and popular, incarnates Rand’s notion of the beautiful brute more than Dorothy does. As a girl, she picked on schoolmates who had fewer friends; at one point, transported by “swelling arrogance” and “boiling greed,” she sexually abused a weaker child with a toothbrush. The more Gaitskill reveals about her characters, the more they blur together, as both selfish and selfless at once.
In her penetrating monograph “The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism,” Kristin Dombek describes a narcissistic behavior called “splitting,” wherein the narcissist idealizes that which soothes him and discards that which causes him pain. “Splitting” is also the main structural mechanism of the two novels—and a mental trap that both their protagonists and their readers must resist. Like “Two Girls,” “The Book of Ayn” is built on a seemingly clean division: Part 1 tells the story of Anna’s intoxication with Rand; in Part 2, Anna, breaking violently with Objectivism, goes to a meditation camp on the Greek island of Lesbos to try to murder her ego. Freiman’s Los Angeles is a cesspit of superficiality and selfishness, but the “Beloveds,” as the cultists who run the retreat in Greece call themselves, aren’t much better. The group’s master is known for his collection of three hundred and fifty Harley Davidsons and for releasing “a vicious strain of European bee into the hostile neighboring farmland.” Other seekers at the commune steal Anna’s clothes, cheat on their partners, and neglect their children. Anna, unconsciously emulating Rand, begins a love affair with a much younger man, a refugee from an unspecified war-torn country. Life on the commune can’t heal the effects of his “hard-core trauma,” he tells her. Only Hollywood can; he longs to “try the acting.”
So is everyone a delusional, self-serving, trauma-masking Randian narcissist at heart? You could call that the lesson of the Randgirl novels, although you’d be underselling their sweetness. The books mock their characters, but they also argue that egoism can be nourishing and even generative. Gaitskill’s treatment of Anna Granite, for instance, is unexpectedly sympathetic. When Dorothy first meets her idol, the older woman models kindness and empathy. Dorothy panics, unable to speak; Granite, Dorothy says, “stood and gripped my shoulders with both hands . . . her eyes radiated the gentlest strength I had ever experienced, her tough, hot, callusy hands supported me with the full intensity of her life.” Granite tells Dorothy that she can see her suffering but also her resilience and value. She offers her a job. Because Granite has willed herself to believe in her own worth, Gaitskill hints, she is alive to the worth in others. And, in awakening Dorothy to her own inner resources, Granite awakens the young woman’s sense of her fellow-humans as sovereign selves. In the hours before Granite’s lecture, Dorothy is transfixed by passing faces: “the jowls, the eye wrinkles, the bumpy noses, the flower-petal quality of young female skin.” When Dorothy was in college, individuals had streamed together into a monolithic threat. But “as I walked among the citizens of Philadelphia,” she says, “I felt as though I occupied a compartment of personal space that they instinctively respected as I respected theirs.”
Freiman finds less to salvage in Rand’s life or work, but the novel is rightly skeptical of the wellness industry’s promises to subdue the demands of selfhood. After failing to make a TV show and then failing to kill her ego, Anna takes stock. She comes to realize that she can’t write without self-esteem—and that writing, more than being a contrarian or even a good person, is her vocation. “There was only one thing that ever helped me,” she says. “One thing that had always been there, strung up at the threshold of my mind like tiny golden lights, enchanting me into life, dangling its whimsy and warm lozenges of hope.” This thing is writing—“only writing promised me happiness, or at the very least progress”—and the type of writing Anna wants to do, voicey and spiky and singular, requires an “I.”
Unlike the self-aggrandizer, the artist, Freiman implies, uses her “I” as an alloy, creating a material both durable and porous, blending what she has felt to be true with what she imagines might be true for others. The writing that Anna intuits will save her dangles at the “threshold” of her mind because it directs her both in and out. Throughout the novel, as she flails around trying to fill her perceived emptiness, what she fills it with are the words, ideas, and lives of roommates, romantic partners, Internet commenters, friends, influencers, yoga instructors, cult members, Antifa activists, and embarrassing conservative philosophers. She reads their books, goes to their events, and stays in their homes. By the end, her “I” has been vastly expanded: other people live in her head, whether she wants them to or not, shaping the innermost contours of her self. This vision of identity as plural means that self-assertion does not necessarily come at the expense of the rest of the world. It could even be a declaration of life on another’s behalf.
Both Freiman and Gaitskill play up the Möbius-strip aspect to selfishness and selflessness—when I stand up for me, they suggest, I am also standing up for you, because we are intertwined. At their most persuasive, though, the Randgirl novels don’t applaud the morality of self-interest so much as they paint self-absorption as a useful but transient phase. Freud characterized narcissism as a form of arrested development. The narcissist, instead of sprouting healthy attachments to others, remains stranded in the oceanic self-involvement of infancy. Gaitskill and Freiman rescue this creature from a state of frozen pathology, returning her to her rightful place within a developmental stage. Dorothy and Anna, perhaps, are just passing through necessary bouts of self-infatuation on their way to maturity. Late in “Two Girls,” Justine comes to appreciate the role that Granite played for Dorothy, even as she believes that Dorothy has outgrown Granite:
Instead of a bogeyman or a red flag, maybe Rand is just a set of training wheels, or a trellis on which characters can temporarily support their unfurling selves. “Everybody had a moment of loving Ayn Rand,” Anna’s mother tells her—it’s a low point for our Randgirl, but a reassurance to readers, who are happy to welcome this lost sheep back into the herd. ♦