Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

With Ayn Rand, Ludwig Von Mises and Fred Hayek books selling like hot cakes the last 2 years, I decided to try some Rand writing. While Atlas Shrugged was so unbearable that I returned it to the store, the novel The Fountainhead is an absolute winner. It was incredibly hard to put down, and I would read 40 pages at a clip. Rand really hit a home run with this, which is what probably allowed her to take some chances and go further into her philosophy in Atlas. If you buy this, there are many reasons to read it.

The Fountainhead is set in the 20s and 30s, so there is a nostalgia factor at play. There are references to speakeasies, the boom and bust, the style and architecture and the growing socialism and collectivism plague of that era. There is a charm to reading about that era. The novel happens to have people of all income levels, but there is an elegance to the way Rand describes their lives. Even when reading about the poor characters in novels set in those days, there is a touch of dignity or integrity to the characters.

The real success is in the characters. Rand creates characters you will HATE and characters you will support and rally around against his or her foes. Everyone knows a Peter Keating, and those who are aware of a Keating hate the Keatings of the world. When I read passages focused on Keating I could see many of my college peers and some people I have know through work. To see his story arc and his rejection of the one person who he truly felt at peace with will stir you. Gail Wynand and Dominique Francon appear as the realization of good ambition and purity of spirit who compromise themselves to fit into the current world. Gail is a fun character and much more enjoyable than Dominique. Gail is 3 dimensional and not just the rags to riches tycoon archetype. I enjoyed how he gets that 2nd wind in midlife due to his marriage to Dominique but reaches another level through his friendship with Roark. Roark reminds him of what he could be, and Wynand is reinvigorated by his presence. Dominique's story arc is more interesting prior to her relationship with Roark. It is as if her awesome independent mind collapses when she meets up with Roark and becomes part of a whole rather than herself. Maybe that is the point, but I enjoyed her earlier in the book.

The two main characters making up the protagonist/antagonist battle are Howard Roark (the hero) and Ellsworth Toohey (the jerk). Roark is Rand's version of the Nietzchean Superman. He is committed to his love, creating buildings. That is his purpose in life. He holds to it. His goal is to do it the best way he can and to do it free of restraints. Ellsworth Toohey is the snidely little douche you knew in school who grew up to be a manipulative bastard who uses people for his own gain. Toohey was Rand's over the top representation of the "I know better than you what is best for you" progressive socialists of the day (they are still amongst us). I think Toohey's final outcome is decent and shows how no matter what happens, no matter how small the stage, he will still be the same manipulative douche. One thing I did not like was how blind everyone was to his actions and motives. I might just be too much the skeptical person to believe almost everyone, including Keating who told Toohey's niece to not introduce him to Toohey as he would use him, could not see his obvious motives. Roark is the heroic opposite of Toohey. Rand makes the world around Roark extremely lame to further heighten how wonderful Roark is and endear him to you.

Rand is very obvious with her beliefs and with her portrayal of what she thinks is right and what she thinks is wrong. One has to keep in mind her spot in history. Rand's family left the Soviet Union, having seen the rise of the murderous Soviet machine of collectivism. While in the USA, she saw the transformation of a small and relatively passive federal government to a much stronger, centralized federal government over the course of the Depression and WW2. As The Fountainhead would push, and Atlas Shrugged would shove, let us remember that all great leaps and changes came about because one person was not satisifed, wanted something different, or dreamed the 'impossible'. This was an excellent read and I highly recommend it to anyone.

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