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Monday, August 27, 2018

Reading List: Ideal

Rand, Ayn. Ideal. New York: New American Library, 2015. ISBN 978-0-451-47317-2.
In 1934, the 29 year old Ayn Rand was trying to establish herself in Hollywood. She had worked as a junior screenwriter and wardrobe person, but had not yet landed a major writing assignment. She wrote Ideal on speculation, completing the 32,000 word novella and then deciding it would work better as a stage play. She set the novella aside and finished the play version in 1936. The novella was never published nor was the play produced during her lifetime. After her death in 1982, the play was posthumously published in the anthology The Early Ayn Rand, but the novella remained largely unknown until this edition, which includes both it and the play, was published in 2015.

Ideal is the story of movie idol Kay Gonda, a beautiful and mysterious actress said to have been modeled on Greta Garbo. The night before the story begins, Gonda had dinner alone with oil baron Granton Sayers, whose company, it was rumoured, was on the brink of ruin in the depths of the Depression. Afterwards, Sayers was found in his mansion dead of a gunshot wound, and Gonda was nowhere to be found. Rumours swirled through the press that Gonda was wanted for murder, but there was a blackout of information which drove the press and her studio near madness. Her private secretary said that she had not seen Gonda since she left for the dinner, but that six pieces of her fan mail were missing from her office at the studio, so she assumed that Gonda must have returned and taken them.

The story then describes six episodes in which the fugitive Kay Gonda shows up, unannounced, at the homes of six of her fans, all of whom expressed their utter devotion to her in their letters. Five of the six—a henpecked manager of a canning company, an ageing retiree about to lose the house in which he raised his children, an artist who paints only canvases of Ms Gonda who has just won first prize in an important exhibition, an evangelist whose temple faces serious competition from the upstart Church of the Cheery Corner, and a dissipated playboy at the end of his financial rope—end up betraying the idol to whom they took pen to paper to express their devotion when confronted with the human being in the flesh and the constraints of the real world. The sixth fan, Johnnie Dawes, who has struggled to keep a job and roof over his head all his adult life, sees in Kay Gonda an opportunity to touch a perfection he had never hoped to experience in his life and devises a desperate plan to save Gonda from her fate.

A surprise ending reveals that much the reader has assumed is not what really happened, and that while Kay Gonda never once explicitly lied, neither did she prevent those to whom she spoke from jumping to the wrong conclusions.

This is very minor Ayn Rand. You can see some of the story telling skills which would characterise her later work beginning to develop, but the story has no plot: it is a morality tale presented in unconnected episodes, and the reader is left to draw the moral on his or her own. Given that the author was a struggling screenwriter in an intensely competitive Hollywood, the shallowness and phoniness of the film business is much on display here, although not so explicitly skewered as the later Ayn Rand might have done. The message is one of “skin in the game”—people can only be judged by what they do when confronted by difficult situations, not by what they say when words are cheap.

It is interesting to compare the play to the novella. The stories are clearly related, but Rand swaps out one of the fans, the elderly man, for a young, idealistic, impecunious, and totally phoney Communist activist. The play was written in 1936, the same year as We the Living, and perhaps the opportunity to mock pathetic Hollywood Bolsheviks was too great to pass by.

This book will mostly be of interest to those who have read Ayn Rand's later work and are curious to read some of the first fiction she ever wrote. Frankly, it isn't very good, and an indication of this is that Ayn Rand, whose reputation later in life would have made it easy to arrange publication for this work, chose to leave it in the trunk all her life. But she did not destroy the manuscript, so there must have been some affection for it.

Posted at August 27, 2018 21:25