Monday, February 01, 2010

I just finished Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane (soon to be a major motion picture starring Leonardo DiCaprio).

In some ways a pretty standard genre thriller (US Marshals go to a mental hospital on an isolated island to investigate a disappearance, things are more complicated than they seem, they get trapped on the island, etc.) but it turns out to have a twist.


It turns out to use another genre cliche, the unreliable narrator. But Lehane has walked into a classic trap - this kind of cliche is only appreciated by readers when done in as minimal a fashion as possible. The larger an author makes this, and the cleverer they are in its implementation, the more the readers will hate them for it.

When the twist is revealed at the end, that the main protagonist is actually a mental patient and the events of the story have been a combination of the staff putting on an act to help him work through his psychosis, and actual hallucinated episodes, everything that comes before it is undermined. The reader has spent an entire novel sympathizing with, or rooting for, the protagonist and the rug is completely pulled out from under them. It can't but leave an unsettled and unsatisfied feeling in many readers.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Yesterday, I finished The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics by James Valliant.

This book has been out for a while, and I only had a slight interest in it. While reading Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, I was bothered by how much she depended on inputs from Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, who seem to have a vested interest in misrepresenting Rand in certain ways. Since this is the topic of Valliant's book (called PARC for short), my interest was renewed and I tracked down a copy in order to confirm or disprove my suspicions.

Valliant's book does an excellent job of laying out the case against the Brandens. The first half deals mostly with the Branden's own statements, whether as part of the books they have published on Rand, or separate statements they have made over the years. This part does a masterful job of dismantling both Branden's claims. Valliant himself puts it perfectly:

Many of the claims made in the Branden's books are undoubtedly true. A good many of them are demonstrably false, misleading, one-sided and self-serving. Being unclear as to their sources -- often overtly suppressing their sources -- it is not generally possible to distinguish the true from the false and therein lies the problem for the usefulness of these works to historians.
Valliant shows that the Brandens claims contradict other sources (compare their views of Rand and her moods with those of Charles and Mary Ann Sures in Facets of Ayn Rand), contradict external records (compare Barbara Branden's description of Ayn Rand's appearance on Donahue with the video recording of the actual show) and even contradict themselves extensively (too many cases to give just one).

The second half of the book uses Ayn Rand's private journals, preserved in the Ayn Rand Archives and only made available in recent years, to give the other side of the story of the last few years of the Branden/Rand relationship and its end. This section of the book is harder reading, partially because Ayn Rand's journals use Objectivist terms and short hand and partially due to Valliant's writing style, which is more suited to his job as a prosecutor rather than a historian at times. But the overall impact is to heighten the sense of exactly how deceptive the Brandens were, particularly Nathaniel Branden, and how they both exploited Rand to create opportunities for themselves.

Returning to the topic of Heller's book, reading them together is particularly damaging to Heller. She uses PARC in her end notes, so she must have read it, but she provides no counter argument or justification of why she took the Branden's inputs at face value. She may have just used PARC as a way to get access to the information quoted from Rand's journals, since she claims she was denied direct access (an odd claim in itself, since Jennifer Burns, another independent researched was given access and significant help from the archivist, in a similar time frame). The overall impression I am left with is that Heller chose to use the Branden's inputs because they made for a more dramatic story, rather than because they were most likely true.