Short fiction

Who is John Galt?

“Who is John Galt?”

This intervention is structured as the first page of a text, to spark an interest in the reader and provoke them to continue. It uses the same first sentence as Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged: ‘“Who is John Galt?”’

I’ve always thought this was a wonderfully ambiguous beginning to a book, hooking the reader right away as they immediately want to know who John Galt is too. Although Rand begins her novel by focusing in on a character actually being asked this question personally, I chose to intervene by making it a much broader statement. It appears on billboards and signs all over New York City, simultaneously baffling and intriguing whoever views it; the same effect it has on the reader as they begin Atlas Shrugged.

I’ve chosen to use a lot of questions, to illustrate the possible thought path a viewer of this question on a billboard might undergo, and the confusion and interest that it provokes.  The text could also be viewed as the thoughts of the character that is introduced later.

*

‘Who is John Galt?’

asked the billboard, the newspaper headline, the subway car, in unison.

The words screamed at passersby all over the city, plastered on any flat surface that could be found.

Small children added to the cacophony, this time articulating the unanswerable question for their already overwhelmed parents.  “I don’t know, darling,” would come the reply. Most often, this provoked the even more baffling, “Why not?”

Part of the intrigue of the question, as with most blatantly ambiguous matters, lay in personal attempts to figure out the answer. What were these signs advertising – a new Broadway show, candy bar, menswear brand?

But even further – the elusive ‘who’ hooked them in. Was Galt an actor? A political candidate maybe? A clever advertising exec – calling attention in the simplest way possible, 50 foot high red letters?

Or was it something bigger than that? Who was to say this John Galt even existed? Was this merely some strange philosophical exercise, crafted to make New Yorkers question their perceptions of reality and existence? If it were suggested that he existed, did Galt come into being – a creation of public consciousness?

Cervillius Hampden did not know.

But what he did know, was that the New York smog smelt deliciously thick with mystery for the first time in months.

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