Friday, November 20, 2009

Stale Fount

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand, Read by Christopher Hurt, Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2007

I've read a lot of books in my life. Big books, small books, important books, difficult books, trashy books. And I've listened to a lot of audiobooks, often things I wouldn't take the time to sit down and read, things I could listen to as I went about cleaning the house, working, driving someplace, and so on.

With the possible exception of the first book in the Twilight series, I have never listened to an audiobook that was more sheer excruciating torment than Ayn Rand's massive 700+ page The Fountainhead.

Now, some might think that I disliked the book on sheer political grounds. That I did not enjoy the experience because I disagree with Rand's right wing world view. While I'm sure there's some truth in that, because I was revolted by the sheer loathing for mankind dressed up in some pseudo-garble folderol, I have read and listened to (and enjoyed) books whose authors I disagreed with wholeheartedly. Louis-Ferdinand Celine was a Nazi sympathizer but I have seven of his novels on my shelf and they're great fun. They're not great fun because they're filled with Nazi propaganda and vicious anti-Semitism; they're great fun because they're not religious tracts; they're models of style and pacing; they're a fevered delirium tremens, howls of despair loaded down with poisonous black humor. Because Celine was a great writer, whatever his moral failings and however loathsome his political views.

No. What made The Fountainhead so fist-clenchingly, head-shakingly exasperating to get through is that Rand, whatever her moral failings and however loathsome her political views, is a piss poor writer. Scenes repeat themselves over and over with a tiresomeness. The hero, if you can call him that, architect Howard Roark, does things his own way, screw everybody's else's methods. This, of course, brings him into conflict with people. Over and over we are treated to scenes in which Roark stares down some adversary, cold and hard, while his enemy squirms like a bug on a pin and expounds, at length and in dialogue so wrenching to the ear that an audiobook version is almost a crime, the kind of high-falutin paragraph upon paragraph that no one speaks outside of extremely stoned philosophy undergraduates. And time and again, Roark comes out on top, while everyone else is played for fools.

Scene after scene we are given of these strawmen nobodies in the book, like Peter Keating, the "successful" architect who can't design for shit on his own, as he crawls to Roark for free lessons in architecture and free building plans, as he cravenly stabs people in the back in his rise up the social ladder, in his inner emptiness and hollowness. Time after time, heroine Dominique Francon exasperates men by her stubborn willfulness, her unique mind, her contrarian spirit. Time after time, villain Ellsworth Toohey plots to take over the world with his socialist plots, his mustachio twirling, and his own disgust for mankind disguised poorly as love, monologing the kind of speeches that would put Fidel Castro to sleep.

We get it, we get it. These are not characters; these are cartoons, Roark the comic book Superman bristling all over with muscles corresponding to no real anatomy, Toohey the Lex Luthor, physically weak but brilliantly evil, Dominique the luscious babe in corset splitting style.

Howard Roark, about to do some architectin'

In their entirety, from the biggest to the smallest characters, no one thinks, acts, speaks or exists that even remotely feels like a thought-out human being. And the reason for that is, they're not. At all. Every character from the big to the small exists to serve the agenda, to forward a specific socio-ethical position. The weakness to this is that in Rand's work there are only two positions to take. You are either with Howard Roark and believe that humanity consists of a handful of Creators who make everything of any value whatsoever, or you are against Roark and on the side of the vast bulk of humanity who are leeches and sponges, parasites living off of the Creators, who contribute nothing of value to the world and would be better off dead.

Well, what can you do with such starkly and diametrically opposed views?

There are writers who can invest their characters with various political or philosophical dogma and let them hash it out. The result is a novel of ideas. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. A good example of one that works is Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Mann makes characters embody certain philosophical concepts and traditions prevalent at the time of the writing, but in his strength as a writer, he doesn't forget that he's writing about people, about human beings, and he invests his characters with that spark that allows the reader to feel these people as rich and as varied as actual humans. You find yourself caring not just about the fate of the heroes, but invested in the actions of everyone, even the villains.

That barely ever happens in Rand's novel. Instead, Roark is this force, this implacable, driving idealist, an artist who doesn't give a damn if anyone else likes his buildings, an architect who doesn't even take into account the people who will live in and use his buildings. No, all he cares about are the structures. When we first meet Roark, he is described much in the way many victims describe psychopaths. We are repeatedly told that people felt as if he didn't see them, as if he looked at them and saw nothing. He is himself as human as a block of granite, and for this reason immensely boring when he's on the stage. That's not just poor writing; that's the fundamental worst sin of writing.

While Rand positions wunderkind Peter Keating as the narcissist in the book, there is a distinct feeling that it is Roark who is constantly being set up against a noble backdrop, Roark who is being dandied up with spotlights and soaring theme music, Roark who has an almost sociopathic indifference to anyone around him who sports the unnecessarily swollen ego.

Coupled with him are Dominique Francon (whose name gives away the game) and Gail Wynand, publisher of a trashy tabloid. These three character make up the heroic factions of the novel (though Wynand is the flawed superman of the bunch, leading to his almost downfall). They are rugged individualists no one quite seems to "get." Those not "getting" these three paragons are the failures of mankind, the "second-handers," those who live off the successes of the great. Into these two slots, Rand has shoved every character, and the effect is as dispiriting as when George Lucas takes control of a project. The end result is very similar as well: a poorly crafted, blisteringly obvious bit of stage management where the underdogs come out on top because they're right and everyone else is wrong.

Wynand is a perfect example of this. A former childhood gangster in Hell's Kitchen, he rises to Hearst-like prominence as newspaper publisher because he's a rugged individualist, because he's 90% like Roark. The underdog with nothing, Wynand rises to be one of the richest and most powerful men in New York City (in America or the world, for that matter). Even though Wynand caters to the "second-handers," giving them the trashy yellow journalism they love in their hearts, all the while professing a desire for uplifting stories of morals and redemption, he too is one of the elite, a self-made man who acts and talks like no former slum child in existence before or since. Sure, there are stories of rising from the lowest rung on the ladder to heights of media prominence undreamed of (Oprah anyone?), but to have him spouting these endless didactic philosophical ruminations is too much on top of everything else we're expected to swallow.

Rounding out the bunch we have Dominque Francon, the hellcat virgin daughter of Guy Francon, the creative fraud architect who hires his doppelganger in Peter Keating. Dominique was once described by Rand as herself with a bad attitude. She's another wild heart that can't be broken, with the possible exception of the time shortly after they first meet when Roark rapes her and she falls in love. Yes, the frigid iceberg for other men warms up when a strong powerful He-Man puts her in her place -- and once that's done, they're equals. Oh, she mopes around a bit about it, and in the immediate aftermath Rand's writing shows signs of maybe, possibly, almost going for human feeling, but then the camera shifts elsewhere.

Dominique's trajectory through the book is also one of the strangest. On the eve of intellectually bankrupt Peter Keating's greatest triumph, she proposes to him as a way of -- get this -- suffering for her man, Howard Roark, actual almost financial bankrupt. Yes, as her way of proving her dedication to her rapist lover, Dominique will marry a well-off up and coming architectural star rather than slum it with the near penniless love of her life. Now that's dedication. Dominique makes some speech about how this all makes sense and I listened to it three times to make sure I wasn't missing something, but it really doesn't quite gel on any level whatsoever. Then, as Peter begins to struggle as the country moves into Depression territory, Dominique decides to double down on her proof of love for Howard Roark by divorcing Peter to marry uber-rich Gail Wynand.

No, you're right, her stated motives don't make any sense. Dominique appears to trade up the moment the offer is made her, yet somehow we're supposed to see this as the kind of tragic love story that accompanies being one of the Greats of the world.

And, of course, when the time is ripe, Dominique makes her leap to her man, her true and only love. She does this on the eve of his trial for blowing up a housing project. But why, you ask, why would someone blow up a housing project?

Because it did not stay true to his vision.

Here's the layout. Peter Keating manages to snivel his way into scoring a huge housing project gig as government spending begins to pull the country out of the Great Depression. Only, he can't deliver. So, wormlike he crawls to Roark once again, who draws up the plans. Why does this capital-I Individualist agree to make something for the socialist gub'mint and the masses of sponge leeches of these United States? Because he knows how to make affordable housing and no one else does (part of his secret is this loo loo of an apartment you'd just die to live in:

The ceilings were pre-cast; the inner walls were of plastic tile that required no painting or plastering; all pipes and wires were laid out in metal ducts at the edge of the floors, to be opened and replaced, when necessary, without costly demolition; the kitchens and bathrooms were prefabricated as complete units; the inner partitions were of light metal that could be folded into the walls to provide one large room or pulled out to divide it;

tasty, no? I myself have always wanted to live in a plastic-walled apartment with metal fold out temporary walls and sizable metal ducts across the floor). But there's a caveat. The apartment complexes have to be built exactly to Roark's specifications without alteration. Keating promises this will be so; gub'mint bureaucrats object to elements of the design; Keating is overruled; the design is altered...flawed...desecrated!

And so, Roark has no other option but to blow up the building.

It's a statement, you have to understand.

Well, of course the hero is arrested in due time and makes no defense of himself at the trial. That is, he doesn't bother cross-examining any of the witnesses for the prosecution, acts as his own lawyer, and rests his entire case on his closing statement (which doubles as his testimony, yet testimony that doesn't appear to be allowed to be cross-examined; how strange, almost as if written by someone with no clue as how courts actually work).

And even though this closing statement includes an admission of guilt in the crime, it consists mostly of reiterating the Rand philosophy that we've already been beaten over the head with for the last 600+ pages. The jury must have been brain damaged from the verbal beating because without even winking at a possible explication, the verdict comes down "Not Guilty."

There are many ways in which Rand's book is a pile of shit, but this last bit takes the cake for hypocritical fraud.

At the beginning of the book, quite a to-do is made about why architecture needs to be modern, why we shouldn't rely on outmoded styles from the past. No building of the 20thC needs Renaissance stylings or Louis Quinze interiors, Roark avers, just as no car needs horse-drawn carriage trimmings. Fine enough as a point. But in the 25th Anniversary Edition introduction, Rand defends writing her novel as a Romantic style of fiction as made popular in the nineteenth century.
She even defends the earlier style of writing for its frequent portrayal of characters as allegories of ideals. The final reel deus ex machina court decision is of a piece with earlier styles of stage writing in which miraculous resolutions came in during the fifth act and needed no logical or even realistic explanation. Roark is simply found not guilty of blowing up the housing project even though admitting under oath that he blew up the housing project.

What we can take from this is that it is perfectly acceptable for a bad writer to steal ideas and forms from the past when crafting her idealized novel, yet that very novel makes the argument that such thievery in architecture is parasitism, the treacherous dealings of the unoriginal second-hander. It is a brazen piece of hypocrisy, the kind such a serious writer as Rand couldn't even pass off as irony. The novel's lessons seem (not too surprisingly) to boil down her philosophy to those eternal conservative chestnuts "do as I say, not as I do" and "fuck you, I got mine."

And you only have to slug through 700ish pages of turgid, lifeless prose to get to it. And if you do that, the joke's on you.

Reader Christopher Hurt manages the task set before him with sufficient aplomb and brio, with enough vocal distinctions to give us a good sense of character, all without ever falling over into caricatured voices. His regular narration is a pleasant mid-range toned butter that glides effortlessly into your ears. Perhaps far too seductive for overt propaganda such as Rand's deranged Benzedrine fueled rampage.


The Critic said...

A few other minor points that didn't make it into the review:

1.) For a novel about a groundbreaking talent, Rand pulls the same horseshit trick tons of novels and films make when they're about art: we never once get a good visual sense of what the art entails. Oh, sure, a couple times Rand gives us the vaguest sketch of what Roark's buildings might look like, but we are never given a decent enough sense of these marvels' visual style or impact. There's always a gloss over or a cut away or an absence. Instead, Rand fobs us off with descriptions of characters as though they were geometry proofs, all oblongs and ovals and ellipticals, charting the planes of their faces instead of the structures of the buildings.

2. Perhaps one of the single greatest moments of ugh in the novel comes when Roark is describing an out of work sculptor to someone. We are told that this sculptor without commissions suffers more for his lack of creative outlet than hundreds of people crushed by tanks on a field of war. Really? If another character had said such a thing, you might be tempted to say the author was giving them a touch of hysterics and hyperbole. But Rand is without irony and without a sense of humor. What Howard Roark says is true, and we are left with the conclusion that Rand believed such a monstrous thing.

3. Over and over I'm struck by how little foresight and humanity these advocates of the Great Men theory forget their John Donne. No man is an island isn't just a piece of philosophical whimsy; it's also a straightforward description of society. Roark may stand alone at his drafting table, exploding with his vision and his art, but someone cooks the food he eats, someone grows the vegetables that goes into the food he eats, someone loads that food onto trains, someone cleans those plates when he's done. Does Rand and her ilk ever consider how little time Supermen would have for being so super if they had to scrub the skidmarks out of their own underwear. The mundane tasks, performed by the mundane people Rand would like to see rubbed out of existence, are time-consuming but necessary. Make Howard Roark do everything for himself, hoe his own garden, mill his own grain, raise his own livestock, carve his own wooden dishes, hew his own metal blades and tools, make his own pencils and drafting paper, and when will there be time for Enright Houses? In a much depopulated world of Creators, where all the second-handers no longer exist, there will be no audience to buy this supreme art, no commissions to build these skyscrapers, there will only be former artists trying to survive. Or perhaps Rand envisions a world where every task is performed with love by a Supreme Creator, a super laundress who starches shirts like no leech on society ever could, a super taxicab driver who no man tells where to drive and what route to take, super milkmen who give you the food you need, not the food you want. Rand has clearly not taken this into consideration or otherwise, all that is left to her is advocating for slavery.

4. Irony of ironies, in her revulsion toward all things Soviet, Rand has managed to write a book that is of a piece with late era bureaucratically produced socialist realism, a dreary formalism in which medium is not just under the heel of message, but is ground into a pulp. For an example of this kind of Objectivist politburo-ing, dig this crazy set of study guides as provided by the Ayn Rand institute.

The Critic said...

Corrected sentence above:

Over and over I'm struck by how little foresight and humanity these advocates of the Great Men theory have, how much they forget their John Donne.

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