Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Last Book of the 2008 Reading Challenge

I read science fiction. I've read a lot of good, bad and indifferent science fiction. Much of it has been silly. But The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which is not science fiction, is one of the silliest books I've ever read.

There's an ad you see on television. Over footage of the Wright brothers' first flight, a portentous man's voice says, "Conquered the sky." Then it's a mountain climber, and he says, "Conquered Mount Everest". Finally, he says, "Conquered the... neck." It's an ad for a Philishave. The Fountainhead is like that ad. The protagonists and antagonists are architects. They allegedly represent all that is noble - and their antitheses - in society and civilisation. There is, apparently, a nobility of purpose to the art of architecture which is unmatched in all other fields of artistic and/or social endeavour...

The whole book is like that. It's so overwrought and melodramatic you keep on expecting the cast to break into song at any moment. And everyone is such a paragon. No evidence is given for this status - Rand simply tells it us. Repeatedly. And on the few occasions where she tries to provide evidence, she spectacularly fails to convince: the excerpt from an article by the preternaturally insightful critic, for example, proves to be... pretentious empty twaddle.

Howard Roark was studying architecture at Stanton university but is expelled for not toeing the party line. All architecture, apparently, should reflect the past - paying tribute to Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, etc. But Roark is a Modernist, and he won't change. So they boot him out. Peter Keating, on the other hand, is brilliant, good-looking, graduates at the top of his class, wins a scholarship to France, and is offered a job with top architectural firm, Francon & Heyer.

Roark, meanwhile, goes to work for disgraced and penniless Modernist architect Henry Cameron. He learns a lot, and even gets to design and build the occasional building. While Keating becomes the darling of the architectural elite, lauded for the buildings he designs, poor old noble Roark sticks to his Modernist guns and is despised and hated as a result.

Then there's Ellsworth Toohey, a man so erudite and learned, he's a scintillating and penetrating critic of, well, everything. So, of course, he writes a daily column for the most yellow of New York's papers. Also writing a gossip column for the same paper is Dominique Francon, daughter of Keating's employer, fabled society beauty and cold fish, who appears to be suffering from a debilitating case of ennui and self-loathing. Finally, there's Gail Wynand, owner of the aforementioned newspaper and bits of just about everything else, a man whose hobby it is to break and corrupt anyone who displays the slightest amount of integrity. But he's honest to himself, so that's okay.

These are not stereotypes. They're not even archetypes. They're bloody great cartoon characters painted in primary colours. Rand appears not to know the meaning of "subtlety". For example, only noble paragon Roark is smart enough to design buildings with straight corridors, with windows that don't look onto brick walls, with sensibly-shaped and -sized rooms... And Toohey is such a nasty piece of work that his altruism and "collectivism" is treated with all the contempt and disgust of National Socialism.

I also have to ask: what happened to US literature immediately post-WWII? That's two books from that period I've read recently, and both were populated by the most unlikeable and preposterous characters I've come across in Twentieth Century fiction.

The Fountainhead is a book for simple readers. I can't believe anyone was taken in by its underlying philosophy, Objectivism, for an instant. If they were, I suspect they were blinded by their own selfishness and greed. Or perhaps they allowed Rand's blatant manipulation of her characters and plot in The Fountainhead to sway them. I laughed all the way through the book.

I'll not be reading any other books by Rand. And my copy of The Fountainhead will be going back on This is a very silly book, and I'm frankly amazed that it's considered a classic, or that anyone was taken in by Rand and her juvenile philosophy.

1 comment:

Cliff Burns said...

Helluva note to end your 2008 "Reading Challenge" on. But I applaud you for giving FOUNTAINHEAD a chance. Despite having it thrust on me by various right wingers and proponents of individualism of all stripes, I have resisted their entreaties and ignored their assurances that "Rand is a very misunderstood author".

Aren't they all...