Rand's largest talent lies not in her status as the mother of Objectivism, but her ability to play the Cool Girl in the minds of men whose view of women is colored by both desire and revulsion.
Ayn Rand's Ideal was a very bad play. It is an even worse novel. In his introduction to the book, which was released posthumously earlier this month (the play version of Ideal was published decades earlier and first performed in 1989), Ayn Rand estate heir Leonard Peikoff writes, "Ideal in either version has a story but not, in AR's definition, a plot."
That is only partially true: Ideal lacks a plot but it doesn't have much of a story, either. There are things that happen, and characters who say words, but even the term "character" feels generous for what are essentially names on a page, each followed by a perfunctory two-sentence description. It's difficult to characterize the book as "literature," since it seems to have been written outside of any tradition in which words are carefully selected and artfully threaded together to form an interesting and compelling narrative.
Like much of Rand's work, Ideal exists primarily as a mechanism through which to present a set of simplistic and self-serving philosophical statements. It's less of a novel than it is a list of ideas, the kind a stoner freshman who just sat through his first political philosophy lecture might doodle out: People are hypocrites. Religion is bad. Socialism sucks. Although one would hope even the stoner freshman would avoid sentences like, "He felt as if there was something—deep in his brain, behind everything he thought and everything he was—which he did not know, but she knew, and he wished he did, and wondered whether he could ever know it, and should he, if he could, and why he wished it."
To be fair to Rand, she knew the book was bad—so bad she never published it, instead reworking it for the stage, a form in which it was only marginally less bad. But there is a large and rabid modern Ayn Rand fan base eager to snap up a "new" title, and so despite Peikoff's own description of the book as "juvenilia," it is now publicly available to anyone who may want to read its (blessedly brief) 125 pages.
Ayn Rand devotees may not be great intellectuals, but their reading lists are slightly more sophisticated than, say, Adios America: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole (Ann Coulter's latest) or 'Don't Make the Black Kids Angry': The hoax of black victimization and those who enable it (Colin Flaherty's). They want fiction, but the Fox News version—shallow, digestible bits that confirm their worldview and verify their own superiority. For Rand acolytes, Ideal may not be Atlas Shrugged, but it's a good-enough ancillary—like reading Ted Cruz's Twitter feed when you can't make the full Tea Party rally.
Ideal is the story—"story"—of Kay Gonda, a waifish blonde actress accused of killing her lover. Fleeing from the police, she pays a visit to six different men in one night, each of whom has written her fan letters. One by one, the men promise to protect her, and then systematically betray both Gonda and, Rand ham-fistedly implies, their own ideals. There's no narrative or emotional complexity here. It's not clear what Gonda offers any of these men other than a beautiful, blue-eyed blank canvas onto which men can paint their desires (in typical Randian subtlety, one man is an artist who literally paints images of Kay Gonda over and over).
It's not clear why the men write to Gonda, except that they are all sad-sack caricatures seeking some sort of meaning—there's the suburbanite with the nagging wife and badgering mother-in-law, the illiterate hick, the fancy-pants artist, the down-on-his-luck preacher, the bankrupt playboy, and the just-fired young man teetering on the edge of vagrancy (in the play, Rand swaps out the hick for a union-loving leftist). The conclusion's big reveal and Rand's half-hearted attempt at a plot twist fails. The book ends. The reader feels nothing—not even relief or satisfaction at completing a project. The strongest emotion one can muster at the end of Ideal is, "I just read a thing."
But what makes Rand interesting has never been her work, which is universally middling. Instead, it's the reactions her work inspires, especially from the kind of socially awkward white men who seem disproportionately drawn to libertarianism and for whom Rand is a mascot of sorts. The Randian view of the world is pitiless, cruel—"Whenever there's a sneer of disgust at the disadvantaged, the ghost of Rand is hovering near," Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes in The New Republic.
See also: the sneer of disgust at women, embodied neatly in Milo Yiannopoulos's review of Ideal for VICE. Yiannopoulos pays scant attention to the actual book, beginning instead by complaining that the same liberals who beg for more female writers and female lead characters don't give Rand her due. He manages to work in references to Beyoncé, E.L. James, and, in a particularly odd aside, GamerGate, the purpose of which seems to be little more than an opportunity to label the barrage of death threats received by videogame writer Anita Sarkeesian simply "criticism" and to make the point that people were mean to Ayn Rand about her sex life, too.
One of the few Ideal plot—"plot"—points Yiannopoulos is careful to include is the rape scene, which he describes as a "pseudo-rape," a "consensually ambiguous" encounter that "the sex-negative, authoritarian modern feminist movement" refuses to believe "might be thrilling for both parties." Here's how the "pseudo-rape" goes down: Our main character Kay Gonda is in bed trying to sleep; the fan whose home she's at is drunk and even though he has already agreed to sleep on the couch, he decides, "Why should he care what would happen then, afterward? Why should he care what she'd think of him?" and he walks into the bedroom.
"She lay dressed, on his bed, and her one hand hung over the edge, white in the darkness. She jerked her head up and he could guess her eyes on the pale blot of her face. She felt his teeth sinking into her hand.
She struggled ferociously, her muscles tense, hard, sharp as an animal's.
'Keep still,' he whispered hoarsely into her throat. 'You can't call for help!'
She did not call for help..."
Rand may not be the most skillful writer, but nothing about that passage is ambiguous. It's certainly not an example of an "ideal intimate encounter," unless your ideal intimate encounter is rape—and not a "pseudo-rape," but a rape-rape. How people read the scene tells us less about Rand herself and more about the reader, which also seems to explain the outsized cultural importance of Rand's oeuvre.
Perhaps Rand's largest talent lies not in her status as the mother of Objectivism, but her ability to play the Cool Girl, even posthumously, in the minds of men whose view of women is colored by both desire and revulsion. You're not a misogynist if your hero is Ayn Rand, and Ayn Rand is the ultimate shield and sword for the kind of arguments regularly entered into by the kind of man who worships Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand wouldn't care that you called her a slut on the internet. Ayn Rand doesn't think it's rape if you hold her down and shove your dick in her without permission. Ayn Rand probably drinks whiskey and plays beer pong and has always had way more guy friends because girls cause so much drama. She's the Sociopathic Pixie Dream Girl.
It's difficult to make the case that Ideal itself merited publishing, except insofar as it opened up another opportunity for Ayn Rand fans to discuss Ayn Rand—and this time around, to turn her into a foil for the harpy feminists whose ideas seem to be winning, and winning especially among the young women who are not showing up en masse to libertarian rallies.
For the kind of men who prefer women one-dimensional, Rand is a convenient figurehead for a simplistic morality—a morality that only works for those in a position to experience the world as a fundamentally fair place. For the kind of men who prefer women to be accouterments, Rand offers the convenient corroboration of someone who is not a white man to help mostly white men make a self-serving political case. For the kind of men who prefer women to be ideas instead of actual, complicated people who can speak for themselves, Ayn Rand is also conveniently dead.
You might even say she's ideal.
Jill Filipovic is a journalist and lawyer in New York. She's also on Twitter.
Illustration by Heather Benjamin. Follow her on Instagram.