Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead is Ayn Rand’s second novel and the second most famous of her works of fiction. It’s also second only to Gone with the Wind as my favorite novel. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the book’s original title was Second-Hand Lives.

The story begins as Howard Roark’s formal education ends, in expulsion from a school of architecture. Not only are his designs unusual, he’s neither malleable nor respectful of tradition.

Peter Keating is the son of Roark’s landlady and is also a student of architecture, which is how the two of them meet. Their careers diverge widely from then on. Keating conforms to expectations and knows how to handle people, so despite having little talent or interest in his field, he gets a job with a famous architect and eventually becomes that architect's partner.

In contrast, Roark is brilliant and creative, but also stubborn – he’s a my-way-or-the-highway person, much like his creator. But I like that, because the problems he faces are caused as much by himself as by society and the people who work against him. He’s not by any means an innocent martyr. And I loved reading about each success of his, because they’re rare and because he fights for them. Nothing comes easily for him.

The other men in the novel are just as fascinating. Gail Wynand is a powerful newspaper tycoon who compromised his values (“sold his soul”, as the book puts it) to rule the masses. As for Ellsworth Toohey – the four parts of the book are named for those four characters – he’s one of the best antagonists I’ve ever encountered.

Toohey is brilliant, self-controlled and superbly manipulative. He’s the only antagonist who can give a Villain Monologue at the end and get away with it, since his only listener has been mentally broken down to the point where he’s no threat. Toohey’s drug of choice is control. He searches for the weak points in every person and organization, then insinuates himself into those cracks. Rand shows this in fascinating progress throughout the book, and I do mean shows; the meetings of Toohey’s kinds of creative people are a great example.

And while he has a huge influence on Roark’s career (basically, he tries to destroy it), the two of them only have one direct exchange, which ends when Toohey says, “We’re alone. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? No one will hear it.”

“But I don’t think of you,” Roark replied.

The heroine, for me, is quite a different matter. Dominique Francon is intelligent and independent, but what really frustrates me is her skewed view of the world. As she explains, she wants perfection or nothing, so you can tell that she and Roark will be happy together. But she spends a lot of time trying to destroy him – so that he won’t continue to give the world beautiful buildings that will be mocked or ignored.

So she never struck me as being completely sane, and she’s about as normal physically as she is mentally, since according to the book she has “rectangular eyes”. Though I did like the descriptions of her clothes. And there’s a great scene where, in the course of her work, she dresses down and moves into a slum tenement to see what it would be like to live there.

But she moved as she had moved in the drawing-room of Kiki Holcombe – with a cold poise and efficiency. She scrubbed the floor of her room; she peeled potatoes; she bathed in a tin pan of cold water. She had never done those things before; she did them expertly… She was indifferent to the slums as she had been indifferent to the drawing-rooms.

More of that and she would have been a great heroine.

But the book was well worth reading to me regardless. As a writer I could sympathize with someone who faced rejection. And when I was living back in the Middle East, being pressured to conform to my family’s expectations (especially concerning religion), I would remind myself not to compromise my values. I’ve read this book at least six or seven times and despite its flaws, I love it.

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