Reading “The Fountainhead” might just be one of the most contradictory experiences of my life. It has been fascinating, annoying, illuminating, depressing and uplifting all at the same time and will be one of the few books I’ve read in over 30 years which I can genuinely say will have a long-lasting effect on my life.
This sense of contradiction, I feel sure, would sit well with the author, Ayn Rand. The entire book consists mostly of regularly place monologues by the various characters who turn logic and emotion on its head and cause you to reconsider even your most fundamental ethics. In this story, rape is heroic and romantic, love is attempting to destroy the one you love; it is the altruist, the person who dedicates their lives to the service of others, who is the villain and the selfish individualist who is the hero. Coming to that conclusion requires hours and hours of attentive reading; “The Fountainhead” is not a short book.
It took longer even longer for me – four months in fact – because I could not bear more than a few pages at a time, such was the magnitude of its impact. I was often left dazed, on many levels, and unable to carry on. Sometimes even once the book was down I felt impotent and unable to continue a single task. The effect was ghastly yet I was always drawn back to the pages.
I’ve giving the book a five-star rating despite the fact that the characters are, to an extent, two-dimensional and the plot, at times, coldly melodramatic and even a little comically and needlessly messianic at times. I’ve stated in reviews before that the mark of a good novel for me is that once the last word has been read I should be disappointed that the book has come to an end and I would want the characters to live on. I care very little about the ‘hero’ Howard Roark nor his hidden nemesis Toohey or any of the other characters within. I’m not sorry the book is over – in fact I’m relieved; if there was a sequel I wouldn’t read it. I probably won’t read this novel again.
So why the highest rating? Because this is a book which can’t be judged by traditional markers. I care nothing about architecture – the chief vehicle for driving the plot onwards – and I disagree with much of the sentiments of the author and characters she has speak on her behalf. Yet I found every statement thought-provoking and challenging; every character, cold, distant and yet somehow expressing some of my innermost feelings and fears. Never have I been more disturbed by a book and yet, despite this life-changing experience, nothing has changed in my ethics or beliefs; indeed, I’m more focused and certain than ever before.
To try and explain how or why this is would be pointless – you have to read the book for yourself – but it is easy to see why this novel has remained in the pantheon of the best intellectual books more than 70 years after first publication. In fact, it was a young friend who recommended to me and I was most surprised to find she had. Surprised, but also delighted.
The author states, in the 1968 introduction to the book that she writes of ‘things as they ought to be’ and how she wanted to create ‘the projection of an ideal man’. For her, this is a case of renouncing religion and championing ‘the glory of man’ going so far as to see her book as a guide to this end for young men and women. I can see why 12 publishers rejected it, thinking there was no audience. It is as philosophically challenging today as it would have been then. For me though, the author succeeds in a very different aim.
My greatest struggle with the novel was the presentation of the philosophical reality of secular human society. For all the rights and wrongs of religion, there is something frighteningly cold and ‘inhuman’ about the world Rand presents but it is a world I recognise nonetheless and it makes me shudder. Roark is not the ‘ideal man’ and individualism is not ‘the glory of man’ yet today the world wants all of this while still clinging to the illusion of society working together and altruism held as the highest virtue.
Rand’s hoped-for world is ever closer today but it is not one I am looking forward to. “The Fountainhead”, by accident I believe, stands along with those giant novels like “1984” and “Brave New World” in warning of a world we really do not want to live in. But unlike those aforementioned masterpieces, Rand doesn’t show us that predicted world but dreams of it coming to happen and presents it as the downtrodden messiah unrecognised by all but a few. The world I fear is the one she wants to see come to pass. May I not live long enough to see it happen.