Tag Archives: Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

Signet, 1943 (1993 reprint), 704 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-17512-3

It took me nearly two years to get over Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and muster up the courage to tackle the other novel that made her famous. As it turns out, I could have waited a little bit longer: The Fountainhead is a lot less fun than her latter book, especially if you tend to look at them as fine examples of comedy writing.

The Fountainhead, in a nutshell, is the story of Howard Roark, an architect of singular vision and talent whose modernistic sensibilities are rejected by the masses and scoffed at by the intelligentsia. Thrown out of school, kicked out of dozens of offices, unable to work with most, Roark is painted by Rand as a tragic figure of brilliance dogged by universal mediocrity. In reality, he’s closer to the kid who just doesn’t want to eat his broccoli, but I’ll let that one pass given that I could spend pages parodying The Fountainhead as an endless discussion about broccoli-eating. (“Eat your broccoli!” “I once may have wanted to eat this broccoli, mother, but I will bow to no one! And so the broccoli shall stay in my plate and not in my palate!”)

But even despite my endless reservoirs of sarcasm when it comes to Ayn Rand, I must admit that the first quarter of The Fountainhead is fun to read. I don’t know much about architecture, so the novel could at least fulfil my hunger for an inside look at the field. I’m also a sucker for depictions or thirties-era New York, with its industrial aesthetics and bustling feel as an emerging metropolis. The structure of the novels’ first quarter also helps, as we watch Roark struggle to maintain his integrity while a friend of his moves up thanks to a minimal amount of social skills. Roark may have all the sophistication of a stubborn five-year-old, but there’s a grander-than-life quality to the character that just makes him irresistibly compelling. The Fountainhead suffers whenever he’s off-stage.

Alas, this happens a lot in the middle half of the novel, as Rand sharpens her knives against her antagonists, none of whom are credible and fewer still are of any interest. Roark is exiled, and all we’re left with is moustache-twirling bad guys and love triangles with all the maturity of modern soap operas.

(Generally speaking, Rand’s attempt at human and romantic drama are nothing short of hilarious when they’re not simply boring: Here, sexual aggression seems to be the dominant romantic model of her protagonists as they’re only a step away from S&M practises. While this may have been of substantial shock value in 1943, this is not the case today, and our contemporary reaction to all of this may be a big smirking shrug.)

Things pick up somewhat toward the end of the novel, as Roark once again becomes a major character. Things finally heat up, a city-wide crisis is triggered and fans of Rand’s multi-page screeds have something to look forward to. (Regular readers are advised to skip to the summation.) Things end up more or less as you’d expect, with human spirit triumphing over the bottom-suckers and Roark imposing his will on a subservient city as his opponents are grandly punished. Or something like that.

Compared to Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead reads a lot like a far less interesting prototype of the same ideas. The emphasis on architecture and the character of Howard Roark aside, The Fountainhead is a lot more restrained, a lot less ludicrous and rather less interesting. Atlas Shrugged is firmly set in science-fiction, whereas The Fountainhead stays anchored to reality with predictably less exciting developments. Rand’s objectivism is more clearly explained in all of its ludicrous glory in Atlas Shrugged, whereas The Fountainhead only occasionally becomes ridiculously obnoxious. Both Rand haters and Rand admirers will be best-served by Atlas Shrugged. As for The Fountainhead, well, Rand herself adapted the book into a movie; why not save yourself a few hours and see for yourself?

Atlas Shrugged (35th anniversary edition), Ayn Rand

Signet, 1957 (1992 reprint), 1057 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-17192-6

I know that, no matter what, I won’t be satisfied with this review.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is bigger than most of the books I usually review. Not merely in a purely physical sense, but also in terms of ideas, reputation and social significance. It champions unusual ideas in a vigorous fashion. It has been credited with the creation of a cult/philosophy. It’s been hailed by various commentators either as a masterpiece or pure trash. Some call it their favorite book. Others think it’s simply obnoxious. You can find endless debates (some of theme quite ridiculously profound) everywhere on the world wide web. (noblesoul.com/orc/ is a great place to start.  That they link to this review only adds to my own good opinion of the site.)

Trying to fit my own feelings about the book in 650 words, when considering the rich decade-old debate already surrounding the book, is somewhat intimidating. But I’ll give it a good try.

Atlas Shrugged starts as hard-core industrial fiction detailing the tribulations of a railroad company. All is not well in that world, though, as lassitude and plain apathy seems to corrupt society from within. Our heroine Dagny Taggart does her best to succeed, but she ultimately comes to realize that someone, behind the scenes, is doing his best to stop the motor of the world. “Who is John Galt?” indeed.

It doesn’t take a long time to figure out that Atlas Shrugged is not only science-fiction (it is!), but that it takes place in an alternate pocket universe with scant relation to ours. The curiously Soviet industrial feel of the book, with its pronounced brushed-steel aesthetics, is a dead giveaway. So are the ridiculously convoluted relationships between the thirty or so characters populating the book. Yes, Atlas Shrugged is one of those imagined worlds where everyone knows each other. (This becomes very handy whenever Rand gets around to postulating her main conceit, which depends on a few dozen people around the country.) The psychology of any of the characters is also incompatible with our reality, from the impossibly virtuous protagonists to the cackling villains. The antagonists of Atlas Shrugged are so impossibly evil and idiotic that you can only wonder at how they’re supposed to form an effective force. Rand stacks the deck a wee bit too much in her favor to make an impact. It just ends up being laughable.

And frankly, once I started giggling at Atlas Shrugged, it proved very difficult to stop. Strip the empress of her clothes, and Rand becomes a humorist. Brain-damaged characters spouting contrived slogans in a made-up universe; funny! Chapter VII “This is John Galt Speaking”, a fifty-page monologue clumsily stuck in the narrative; hilarious! The conviction by which Rand’s protagonists are so certain of what they’re doing; riotous!

As you may gather, I wasn’t completely convinced by Rand’s philosophy, or even her narrative. It surprised me somewhat; as someone routinely accused of having too much faith in other people’s rationality, I should be a prime candidate for Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy.

Instead, it strikes me as a dubious “rational” justification for acting like a selfish child. Calling other people “leeches” isn’t much of an argument. Superficially, Objectivism looks like an excuse for doing whatever you want without regard to other people. And that’s just, well, irrational. Some college students might love it, though…

Still, I don’t regret reading Atlas Shrugged. It is sort of an imposed event for serious readers, a good philosophy primer (if only on why you don’t agree) and an interesting book any way you look at it. Even despite the infamous monologue and the insufferable lengths, it was rather pleasant to read, and certainly managed to hold my attention. But then again, I did giggle a lot: “‘Who are you?’ screamed some terror-blinded voice. / ‘Ragnar Danneskjöld!’

  • Price of the paperback: .50c at a garage sale.
  • Time to read the book: Two weeks.
  • Being amused by Objectivism: Priceless!