BOOK REVIEW | THE SHORTLIST
Weiner’s is an intellectual history told as a horror story. The history is a deliberately ironic one: how “rational egoism,” the doctrine of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel/manifesto “What Is to Be Done?,” which was the inspiration for Russian revolutionaries from Bakunin to Lenin, migrated to the United States in the guise of Ayn Rand’s far-right objectivism. The horror is the uncanny resilience of this particular bad idea: Like a zombie, rational egoism has staggered on despite attempts, from Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” to Nabokov’s “The Gift,” to kill it by ridicule, parody or the power of superior art. But there are real monsters in Weiner’s story as well, from the ascetic and ruthless revolutionary Sergei Nechaev to the coterie of sycophants (among them Alan Greenspan) who gathered around Rand.
Weiner rises to the challenge of paraphrasing Chernyshevsky and Rand and illustrating the clumsiness and incoherence of their books. But his effort doesn’t solve the mystery of their evergreen appeal; instead he inadvertently deepens it. Is graceless style and faulty logic enough to make a book unreadable? Weiner seems to suggest as much, but the record of Chernyshevsky’s and Rand’s countless dedicated readers says otherwise. The mystery of the appeal of “bad writing” is something Weiner’s prosecutorial approach can never quite solve. To tackle the problem would require considerable sympathy, even for writers and readers who, given the disastrous impact of these books, don’t deserve it.