Thursday, September 30, 2010

Long, Angry Fiction (Treatise?) On Architects And Humanity: Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

The Good: Plot, Moments of character
The Bad: Most of the characters, philosophically disturbing
The Basics: While the novelist develops characters well in this book, all of them are ultimately unlikeable and most are spouting dogma that is sickening.

The Fountainhead is a long, long book and the problem is, too often, it feels long. Why does it feel long? Mostly because it's repetitive on issues of character and most of the characters only show great insight once every hundred pages.

As an aside early on, I find it especially troublesome that some view this as a philosophical work. As a work of philosophy, it seems to say two things: 1. The big guys can screw over the little guys and the little guys had it coming and 2. The individual is either a sheep desperate to be part of a flock or an individual entity always persecuted and trapped outside acceptance of any kind. While the latter might occasionally ring true, codifying it so unflinchingly is problematic. It creates the idea that one may not rise above the hive mind and still be liked, accepted, or understood by anyone else. The former premise, ingrained thoroughly throughout the novel, is positively troubling and disturbingly rendered.

That said, The Fountainhead is largely a waste of space. Allow me to start at the beginning.

The Fountainhead begins as a novel about Peter Keating, average architect who rises to the top of his graduating class through conniving and eliminating his nearest competitor in a series of schemes that leave him in the best position to succeed. Keating graduates and gets a job with Guy Francon at the prestigious firm of Francon and Heyer. The novel sets Peter in a dialectic against Howard Roark. Roark is expelled from college the day Keating graduates and he goes off to find another rugged individualist architect, named Cameron.

The two character continue to intertwine as Keating gets aid from the maverick Roark. Cameron dies and Keating gives Roark a job. For a time.

Peter Keating is eminently unlikeable. He's a mama's boy who lives with his domineering mother, proclaims love for Catherine (though none is evident) and then, in a twist unexpected by most, marries another woman on the day he was going to marry Catherine. He's basically a loser and his section of the novel is the rise and fall of a loser in the public eye. About 3/4 of his place in the novel is unnecessary and completely pointless. For instance, the time spent on the Keating/Catherine relationship is utterly worthless.

More troubling is Howard Roark. While I always am rooting for the underdog, here it's frustrating. Peter Keating is my kind of guy; he's his own man following his artistic ideal above all else. Nothing matters to him save his art (in this case architecture). I like that. I kept my eye on Roark, figuring he was my hope from the sliminess of Keating. Despite his quest for perfection and artistic integrity, I lost all respect for him when he raped another character.

Dominique, the character Roark rapes, was someone I was rooting for until she was raped. Why? Her attitude was very close to "I wanted that" and I didn't buy that. It bothered me. Her character was inconsistent and unemotive. She didn't read right most of the time as a real human being. It was bothersome.

Two other characters emerge as important: Ellsworth Toohey, who begins as a philosopher with his own agenda (which is fairly transparent from the beginning when we see how he latches onto Peter Keating) and Gail Wynand, a newspaper owner established early as a villain who doesn't actually enter the book until the latter half.

The problem is the waste of space. The novel begins as Howard and Peter's story, evolves into a love story between Gail, Dominique and Howard, and ultimately ends as a political power play between Wynand and Toohey where Peter and Howard appear only as pawns in their games. The novel works well as any of those three, however, when it begins with Peter and Howard as the central characters and we, the readers, have a vested interest in them, it becomes a vast disappointment to find them relegated to the background, utilized as tools, dehumanized of the emotions they earlier possessed.

While the characters occasionally show moments of insight; Roark in his artistic integrity, Keating in his wounds, Dominique in her self-loathing, Wynand in his epiphanies, and Toohey in his apparent benevolence, each one surrenders their integrity and likeability: Roark with his rape, Keating in his treatment of Catherine (and most everything else he does, for that matter), Dominique in her lack of emotion (especially in her relationship with Peter), Wynand in his resolution to the strike that comes up, and Toohey with his insane rambling that comes about and reads like a bad philosophical exercise.

All in all, The Fountainhead is a disappointment. From characters who all let the readers down to having disturbing philosophies, it's long and the most I found to appreciate was the occasional insight, the occasional line, the third to final chapter of the book and basic plot. That may sound like a lot, but it turns out, it's not.

For other Modernist novels, please check out my reviews of:
The Sound And The Fury - William Faulkner
Vineland - Thomas Pynchon
Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison


For other book reviews, please check out my index page!

© 2010, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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