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?