Rand tends to inspire either religious-grade conversion or wild denunciation, and over the last 40 years a good-size library of violently partisan books has emerged: inside accounts from worshippers, detractors, worshippers turned detractors, detractors turned worshippers. A truly neutral biography seems impossible. Anyone deep enough to be an authority is probably either a true believer or a heretic. But Heller manages to find a nice middle ground; she seems equally happy exposing admirable and ugly secrets. She discovered Rand’s work late, in her forties—well beyond the usual indoctrination age—and, although she calls herself “a strong admirer,” she was denied access to the official Rand archives for being insufficiently pious. Occasionally her tone seems a bit too casually reverential, as when she calls Rand’s satirical skill “at least as keen and passionate” as that of Charles Dickens—a stretch, I think—or says that Rand wrote “more persuasively from a male point of view than any female writer since George Eliot,” which is just silly. (Septimus Smith, for one, would like to deliver a 30-page interior monologue in defense of Virginia Woolf.)
Overall, though, Heller does a remarkable job with a subject who was almost cripplingly complex—a real woman starring in her own propaganda film about a propagandist whose propaganda eventually takes over the world. Toward the end of her life, Rand listened as a prominent psychologist stood onstage and dismissed her fictional heroes—those idealized steel barons and physicists and composers—as implausible. Soon she’d had enough and stood up in the crowd, outraged.
“Am I unreal?” she shouted. “Am I a character who can’t possibly exist?”
She intended this, one suspects, as a refutation. It strikes me as maybe the most profound question she ever raised.