Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

I have a confession. I did not know much about Ayn Rand when I started this book, beyond the name itself. I hadn’t read Atlas Shrugged. I didn’t know anything about objectivism. And so I didn’t react to picking up The Fountainhead like my flatmate did: ‘Ayn Rand. Isn’t she that massive fascist?’

Well, as I have subsequently discovered, me and Ayn don’t really see eye to eye on politics, but I’m glad I didn’t know that when I started reading. I’m also glad I didn’t know that she’s like Sylvia Plath for being a teenage rite of passage read. Because like any awestruck teenager with her first peek at The Bell Jar, I loved this novel. I loved it so much I stayed in to read it. I worried about what was going to happen to Howard when I was at work. I bored my friends about it. I became what I have since discovered to be a ginormous Ayn-Rand-virgin-cliche. But I stand by it. Say what you like about objectivism and free-market liberalism and lots of other -isms – hey, maybe I agree with you, maybe I don’t – this actual, between the pages, story about some people trying to make it in New York is a phenomenal piece of writing.

It would be wrong to call Howard Roark an aspiring architect. He isn’t the kind of man who ‘aspires’. We first meet him at college where he flunks out, despite his enormous talent and a passionate defence by some of his tutors, because of his refusal to use elements of pastiche in his work. Meanwhile his fellow student Peter Keating, a social climber with a strong grasp of architectural history, but no driving artistic force of his own, graduates with high honours. A year later, Keating has schmoozed his way into a prestigious architectural firm and made himself indispensable to its leading partner. His talents are not so much architecture as knowing what his clients want and how to give it to them. Roark is also working in New York, but with a burned-out architect who was once the darling of the modernist scene, only to fall foul of changing fashions and his own caustic temperament. Roark idealises this broken man, who understands the need for a building to be designed according to its site and function, not neo-classic principles and who, like him, would not kowtow to the majority verdict or design by committee.

What much of the novel boils down to is this struggle between the individual and the collective, and the dark nature that collectivism can have. The inability of people to make up their own minds is seen as a dangerous force open to manipulation, while Ellsworth Toohey, the influential social commentator, is a Machiavellian figure who acquires power by manipulating this vacuousness. While I by no means agree with the vision of socialism that this ‘straw man’ presents, the way in which Rand shows him slowly, slowly moving the pieces of his empire together, and the way in which the ‘second handers’ – those too unoriginal, weak-minded or self-serving to have their own vision of greatness – acquiesce to his plans, made for unputdownable reading for me. Toohey is driven by this malign indifference to humanity dressed up as concern for its welfare, and however much you agree or disagree with this as a model of socialism, it makes a great villain. Similarly the glacial Dominique Francon, who desires Roark and a world where he would thrive, but marries Keating because that world does not exist and she will not admit any possibility of it, is a mesmerising (if somewhat frustrating) character. And the moments where Keating is marred by self doubt, sneaking into Roark’s office for help with his plans, and is presented with a pastiche of Keating’s work better than he could do himself, is a powerful one.

Of course, nobody speaks like the characters do in real life. Even in the 30s, when they spoke really fast. Take, for example, Dominique and Gail Wyman kicking back after a hard day at the office, just chatting some sweet nothings about love.

“Or that love is pity.”
“Oh, keep still. It’s bad enough to hear things like that. To hear them from you is revolting–even as a joke.”
“What’s your answer?”
“That love is reverence, and worship, and glory, and the upward glance. Not a bandage for dirty sores. But they don’t know it. Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who’ve never felt it. They make some sort of feeble stew out of sympathy, compassion, contempt and general indifference, and they call it love. Once you’ve felt what it means to love as you and I know it–the total passion for the total height–you’re incapable of anything less.”

Yeah, great, I love you too, darling. This is not a realistic novel, and the characters are all playing their parts as metaphors for some larger aspect of humanity which would make anybody a little hard to swallow. But if they are not realistic characters, they are realistic flaws and aspirations. Even without the politics, this novel speaks of our own desire to achieve and fears about our own motives. You might not agree with it. You might get a bit sick of it towards the end (I did). But you should still read it. Read it. Read it. Read it.

In a tweet: A prime mover.


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