Spanish translation here
Ideal: The Novel and the Play
New York: New American Library, 2015
Ideal is Ayn Rand’s “lost” second novel, whose posthumous publication this summer is a major literary event.
In 1934, after the completion of her first novel, We the Living, Ayn Rand wrote a short novel called Ideal. At 32,000 words, it is 50% longer than Anthem, Rand’s third novel (or novella). Dissatisfied, Rand left the novel Ideal in relatively unpolished form, then recast it as a relatively polished stage play, which she nevertheless did not see fit to publish.
The play of Ideal was published in 1984, two years after Rand’s death, in The Early Ayn Rand: A Selection From Her Unpublished Fiction, ed. Leonard Peikoff (New York: New American Library, 1984). It was also reprinted in 2005 in Ayn Rand, Three Plays, ed. Richard Ralston (New York: New American Library, 2005).
The novel of Ideal, however, was set aside and basically forgotten until 2012, when Rand scholar Richard Ralston decided to give it a closer look. It has now been published alongside the play in a handsome volume of 246 pages.
It is easy to see why Ayn Rand never saw fit to publish either version of Ideal, for it is not very good.
Her main reservation, probably, is that the plot lacks dramatic necessity. Both novel and play consist of a prologue, six scenes, and an epilogue. The main scenes are encounters between the heroine, movie goddess Kay Gonda, and six of her fans. Save for the last one, these vignettes could be presented in any order merely by changing details about the time of day. Rand, however, believed that good plots had greater dramatic necessity, so no two episodes could simply switch places. Of course, most novels — including many great ones — lack such tight plots, so Ideal fails as a story only because of Rand’s particular standards. In truth, the story is captivating enough to grab and maintain anyone’s interest.
To my mind, the real failures of Ideal are that the story rests upon an absurd premise and features a repulsively twisted heroine (and hero), although I fear that Rand did not see things this way. Since the story has been published for three decades now, I have no compunction about summarizing the whole thing.
The heroine of Ideal is Kay Gonda, a mysterious Garbo-like screen idol, who is jaded, bored, aloof, and extremely lonely. When an ex-boyfriend Granton Sayres (loosely modeled on J. Paul Getty) commits suicide, Gonda instructs her press agent to spread the rumor that she is a suspect in his murder. Then she takes six particularly overripe and adulatory fan letters from Los Angles-based readers and visits each author to ask for help–and not just help with a flat tire, but help getting away with murder. She wants to see if any of the people who profess to idealize her will actually risk anything for her in real life.
This strikes me as an utterly idiotic premise for a story. An actress spends her entire life, on and off screen, projecting images. Fans consume these images and develop equally imaginary relationships with their creators. Some of them are even moved to share their fantasies in fan letters. It is all good fun. But when you subtract everything specious in your relationship with such people, there is really nothing left. They are just nullities. So if your favorite actress comes to you in the real world and asks you become an accessory after the fact to murder, only a lunatic would grant that request.
Rand, however, thinks this is a hideous betrayal of their “ideals.” But Kay Gonda is not an ideal. She is just an image. And when the real thing turns up on your doorstep claiming to be a murderess, the image gets a bit tarnished. So who has really betrayed “Kay Gonda” the image: Kay Gonda or her fans?
Beyond that, being unwilling to overturn one’s life to help a wanted criminal based on her screen performances is certainly not equivalent to selling out one’s honor, one’s obligations, and one’s moral principles — one’s actual ideals. What kind of person would be willing to risk ruin over a screen infatuation? And would you really want to meet him? And if Kay Gonda does, what does that say about her psychology?
Gonda’s first visit is to George S. Perkins, who after 20 years has just been promoted to Assistant Manager of the Daffodil Canning Company. George is a milquetoast with vaguely romantic aspirations of touring the Alps and watching swans. He has a nagging wife, a nagging mother in law, and three children, ranging from middle school to drooling infancy. In the play, he has two children, but the wife announces she is pregnant with number three. George presses her to have an abortion, because he wants to spend his additional income on a European vacation. (Rand herself apparently terminated at least one pregnancy to pursue her career.) Rand portrays George as a weakling and domestic life as hellishly sordid. She has utter contempt for bourgeois domesticity and breeders.
Then Kay Gonda shows up, representing the embodiment of all of George’s painfully inarticulate romantic longings. She asks him for help and tells him flat out that he risks losing his wife, family, and career over it. To Rand and Gonda, of course, these count as nothing. But they mean something to George, so he decides to pass. Rand, of course, treats this as the blackest treason to values, but in truth, George simply realizes that his life and family have greater value than his infatuation with a tarnished movie star.
In the novel, the next person Kay visits is Jeremiah Sliney, an old hick who is facing foreclosure and eviction a few days after his 50th wedding anniversary and can’t count on any help from his ungrateful children. When Kay Gonda shows up, Sliney and his wife decide they would rather turn her in for some reward money than spend their last days homeless and hungry. Rand regards them as utterly depraved to pass up an opportunity — at considerable risk to themselves — to aid and abet a glamorous killer before they are deposited into the dustbin. Obviously, their lives are of no worth compared to hers, because it is not everyone who can enthrall millions with languid gestures, doe-eyed yearning, and ecstatic posturing on movie screens.
The portrayal of the Sliney’s as sub-literate moronic hicks — ma and pa Kettle complete with critters living somewhere in L.A. — is so clumsy that Rand violently struck it out of her typescript. In the play she replaced them with Chuck and Fanny Fink, a couple of Communists who are willing to turn Kay in order to hire a lawyer for Fanny and some of her comrades who are in legal trouble because of the death of a scab in a violent protest. The satire is still clumsy in places, but overall it is a vast improvement. In both versions, however, I find it hard to fault their decisions. They are not betraying their values, but simply subordinating lower values (an infatuation with a tarnished screen idol) to higher values (holding onto one’s home or one’s freedom). But for Rand, these people’s lives should mean less to them than Kay Gonda’s.
Next Kay visits Dwight Langley, a handsome, self-absorbed painter on the brink of success. He has just won his first prize and is celebrating. All of his canvases are images of Kay Gonda. When Kay Gonda herself shows up at his apartment, however, he does not even recognize her, then refuses to believe she is Kay Gonda, then angrily orders her out. He does not “betray” his ideal for another value, because he cannot even see that she is there. You see, he is supposed to be a “Platonist,” who does not believe that ideals can be real.
As satire, it is shockingly clumsy. First, if he were literally a Platonist, he would not paint either. Second, if he really were a skilled painter who had made a close study of Gonda’s appearance, he would have recognized her immediately and would not have any doubts about her identity.
After that, Kay visits the tabernacle of low-church evangelist Claude Ignatius Hix. The episode has some amusing satire of rival evangelist Sister Essie Twomey, but Rand’s understanding of American low church Protestants has all the subtlety you would expect from an atheist Russian Jew. For instance, for both Hix and Sliney, statues of the Virgin Mary are meaningful points of comparison.
Hix’s creed is more clearly sketched out in the play. It resembles no Protestant theology that I know of so much as the preaching of the con man Onnie Jay Holy in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood (1952) that there is a “little rosebud of sweetness” in every human soul, i.e., that man is born innocent but corrupted by the world — in short, the Rousseauian notion of the natural goodness of man, which has nothing Christian about it.
Hix thinks Gonda is an embodiment of that ideal on the screen, but when he learns that she is a murderess, he naturally concludes that she need to repent and pay for her crime — and the publicity of being the guy who persuades her to turn herself in wouldn’t hurt Hix either. Again, Rand wants us to think that this is the blackest of betrayals, but this is irrational. Hix actually remains loyal to his values, and he will not betray them to help an actress get away with murder. Beyond that, Hix thinks that getting away with murder would be bad for Gonda’s soul, whereas repentance would be good. So he is actually trying to help her, not betray her.
Kay then calls on Dietrich von Esterhazy. The Esterhazy’s, of course, are a half-step below the Hapsburgs in the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, but in the play, Rand claims he is from Germany. An exile, playboy, and spendthrift, he is as jaded and world-weary as Gonda herself. On the very evening she arrives, he has just written a bad check, his vast fortune has been spent down to nothing, and he has resolved on suicide. Given that he has nothing to lose and an illustrious lineage of chivalrous forbears, it actually makes sense for him to risk everything to help a damsel in distress. But then all that chivalry crap goes out the window when, overcome by lust and cynicism, he tries to rape her. (In the novel, he actually does.) It is the only scene that is psychologically plausible and that features a genuine betrayal of the character’s values.
Finally, Kay visits Johnnie Dawes, the “hero” of the tale, a depressed and alienated loser who decides to redeem his meaningless existence by confessing to a murder that never even happened — and then killing himself.
A man is dead because Kay Gonda pretended to be a murderess to test the devotion of her fans. When Mick Watts, Gonda’s drunken Irish Catholic press secretary who is in total thrall to her personality (rather like Rand’s husband Frank O’Connor), angrily confronts her with the enormity of what she has done, Gonda coolly replies, “That was the kindest thing I have ever done.” It may be true, but even Stalin could boast of kinder acts.
Kay Gonda wears the triple crown of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and sociopathy. Other people are simply not real to her. Their lives have no meaning beyond what they can do for her. So giving Johnnie Dawes a reason to die for her — even a fraudulent one — is an act of kindness. Like I said, our heroine is twisted and repulsive. But Rand had a thing for sociopaths.
Reading the novel and play versions of Ideal side by side is very instructive. One sees how the same story can be told in both genres. Although the play is much more polished than the novel, the novel is still superior in some places.
For instance, the prologue of the play has six characters milling around on stage delivering Kate Hepburn rapid-fire dialogue. The effect is exhausting and brings to mind a pen full of yapping dogs. In the novel, an investigative reporter visits one character after another, allowing one to better assimilate the back story and giving a feeling for forward motion rather than frantic milling.
I also found the Esterhazy scene somewhat better fleshed out in the novel. There is some chemistry and cute flirtation between him and Gonda. But we also learn that Esterhazy is a Nietzschean who believes that people are unequal (obviously true), and that superior people should have the right to kill their inferiors, no questions asked (as a fascist, this offends me). But in every other scene, the play is superior.
Of course, there are some points where the novel and play cannot be compared. The novel offers descriptions that the play must leave to the imagination. The novel also gives insights into motivations (particularly Hix’s) that can only be inferred in the play.
Rand’s writing is uneven in Ideal, much more so in the novel than the play. I found myself chuckling at her alienated satire of Hollywood and bourgeois American life (“old ladies whose faces could sweeten the blackest cup of coffee”) and cringing at the hazy purple prose of the fan letters, which I hope is satire but fear is not.
Ideal is an entertaining but flawed product of Rand’s early Nietzschean-misanthropic phase, before her philosophy or her literary skills had fully matured. So really, there’s nothing ideal about it. Although it is easy to see why Rand never published Ideal, her legions of readers will be grateful that her heirs did not honor her wishes.