The Fountainhead, p19-29
We open with a stumbling and incoherent speech by another strawman in the form of Guy Francon.
“May you all serve faithfully, neither as slaves to the past, nor as those parvenus who preach originality for its own sake, which attitude is ignorant vanity.”
I’ll give Rand props for vocabulary here. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered the word “parvenu” anywhere else.
Shortly afterwards, we get about a million words on how much everyone likes Francon. That he continually thinks about himself in the third person and with his full name throughout his brief time in the spotlight is more than a little bit annoying. I assume this was intended to be annoying. Trust me, it works. It’s not quite as annoying as the architectural genius Roark apparently has that manifests in dull and uninspiring grey boxes, but what the hell.
PSYCHE! Francon isn’t the viewpoint character here at all! We cut to Peter Keating, who will be our obligatory “guy not as good as Roark”, who reaps all the rewards because he sold out while Roark decided to beat his head against the wall around the world until it gave way. Despite this, he is a much more likeable character – he’s an egotist, certainly, but he has people he genuinely cares for, something Roark isn’t good at, and admits to his personal failings, something I somehow doubt Roark would even consider. He even doubts his abilities, something Roark would never do and which is very relatable – impostor syndrome is a thing that really exists. (The general rule of this book is that any time a character is given an interesting, relatable or sympathetic trait, a) it is intended to make Roark look better and b) it is extremely bad at actually doing this, usually making him look worse.)
After we get a page or so of Keating behaving like a human being, we pause for him to shill Roark’s talents. Apparently Roark used to help him when he was stuck on a problem.
Wow. Roark actually did something nice. That is…actually surprisingly hard to imagine. It remains hard to imagine for most of this book.
The fact that Keating’s pang of sympathy for Roark is described as “satisfying” is the first appearance of one of Rand’s many failures to understand other people, namely, the idea that most compassion is simply a thing you do because you want to feel good about yourself. Look: there’s a grain of truth in that, it does often feel good to do something nice. But I don’t think that that momentary hit is the only reason people do it. I think that’s a huge oversimplification.
(Oversimplifying complicated situations is something of a hallmark of Rand’s. Just wait until we get to the point where we learn that, with the exception of people directly involved with Howard Roark, only the incompetent ever become poor. I first read that part nearly two weeks ago and I’m still angry about it.)
We get a bit more of Keating behaving like a human being, which would be dull if it wasn’t a refreshing change from last week’s debate between the emotionless Terminarchitect and the fuzzy One-Man Committee, before we get a half page of Keating’s backstory.
Apparently he originally wanted to be an artist and his mother pushed him into architecture. Again, doing that isn’t exactly praiseworthy, but it is a believable human response. I honestly can’t believe that I’ve been reduced to pointing out moments of actual human behaviour as deviations from the norm. Then again, the hero of this piece is Howard Roark. I’ll take anything to remind me that Rand’s take on reality is not a world of cackling collectivist madmen and sociopathic champions of grinding soulless “integrity”.
When he gets home, we are treated to an entire paragraph – and a long one at that, although not as long as some of the ones that come out when Rand really gets going – on the effect of an electric light on the surrounding leaves. I think this is the literary equivalent of the Nostalgia Critic’s “I’M ACTING” gag.
Roark offers his congratulations to Keating, prompting Keating to think that this is the compliment that means the most to him. I know it’s kind of inappropriate, given that Rand had very negative views about homosexuality, but I kind of wonder what the resultant slashfic would be like*.
Keating then asks Roark’s advice about whether to take a job with Guy Francon or a scholarship to a prestigious school in Paris. For most of this part, Roark acts like a regular human being rather than the Terminarchitect, which is almost jarring. It doesn’t last.
“Never ask people. Not about your work. Don’t you know what you want? How can you stand it, not to know?”
Arrgh. Just as he’s acting at his most human, the mask cracks and we see the circuitry beneath. Really, those last two sentences neatly sum up why virtually everyone in this novel would have made a better protagonist than Roark.
Interesting characters have internal conflict. Peter Keating’s struggle between his compassion and his ambition is internal conflict. At one point he tells his girlfriend not to introduce him to her influential uncle because he’s the kind of person who uses people, and he doesn’t want to use her. That is excellent. We see that he has things about himself he doesn’t like, and that he tries to control those things, but isn’t always successful. That kind of internal tension makes him feel real. We care about which decision he makes, which side he comes down on.
That never seems to happen with Roark, because he makes decisions and virtually never reconsiders them. He doesn’t agonise over the correct course of action; he runs it through his programmed subroutines and comes up with a conclusion. He doesn’t question whether a past decision was correct; it’s operated with a toggle switch. He doesn’t doubt himself. That makes him very hard to relate to. Most of us do doubt ourselves. We question whether we’re able to achieve the tasks that are set for us, or the tasks we’ve set for ourselves. Roark never does. Self-doubt is foreign to him. His mindset can’t handle it. To admit that he could be wrong is the same as admitting that other people have a chance of being right. And Roark would rather eat live coals than deal with the idea that someone else might be right.
An important writing rule: A character who never doubts himself, never finds himself on the horns of a moral dilemma, never learns, never changes, never reconsiders, never struggles with his own darker impulses, never regrets a decision no matter what the consequences are, is never on the wrong side of an issue (as defined by the author), is never rash or indecisive, and just generally never has any kind of internal conflict, is a character who is not interesting.
See, a character who is sublimely convinced of their own infallibility could be interesting – if that conviction led them into bad places. If played for comedy, it could lead to displays much like that Simpsons episode where the local MENSA members took control of the town. If played for horror, you get something more akin to the Operative from Serenity. What’s not interesting is a character who is convinced they are infallible, and after hundreds of pages it turns out…they are infallible after all. That’s boring because it’s static. Characters who can’t doubt or make mistakes can’t learn. What can’t learn can’t change. What can’t change can’t grow. What can’t grow can’t hold our interest. Roark’s unquenchable confidence, applied in absolutes as it is, is actively making him more boring. It’s like reading a terrible fanfic where the author forgot to give their Sue purple eyes or superpowers.
As for an answer to Roark’s question: We can stand not having perfect knowledge of what we want because we need the ability to doubt ourselves. It’s how we stop ourselves becoming monsters. The worst horrors wrought upon humanity – by inquisitors, by dictators, by racist groups and sexist groups and religious or antireligious zealots – have been by people who lacked the ability to doubt themselves.
Yeah, this part is painful because you can see the potential for Roark to become an interesting and three-dimensional character, but Rand didn’t quite have the guts to make the leap.
Suddenly, a wild MRSKEATING appears!
Wild MRSKEATING used HENPECK!
It’s super effective!
Then there’s some stuff to reassure us that yes, Peter has trouble with his domineering mother. Again, we’re supposed to view this in a negative light, but let’s face it: he still cares about that familial connection. Roark doesn’t do that.
And suddenly, more stupid appears out of nowhere.
“What will you learn at the Beaux-Arts? Only more Renaissance palaces and operetta settings. They’ll kill everything you might have in you. You do good work, once in a while, when someone lets you.”
I did mention Roark was obnoxious, right? Pretty sure I mentioned that.
But seriously, one rather obnoxious theme that we keep getting is that there is some eeeevil conspiracy to crush individual expression. And by “theme” I mean “several characters explicitly state their involvement in it”.
After more domesticity, Roark states that he’s going to work for Henry Cameron, and claims it’s settled. Despite having never discussed it with Cameron.
Forcing someone who can barely afford food to employ you. Heroism, ladies and gentlemen!
Finally, Peter rushes off to catch up with his friends:
He was ready. In a few years – so very soon, for time did not exist in the speed of that car – his name would ring like a horn, ripping people out of sleep. He was ready to do great things, magnificent things, things unsurpassed in…in…oh, hell…in architecture.
Look on the bright side, Peter. If this book teaches us anything, it’s that architecture is the Most Important Career In The Entire World, to the point where architecture critics seriously form conspiracies. It certainly doesn’t teach us anything worth learning about ethics, philosophy, economy, psychology or logic, although you can learn quite a lot about all of those things by taking Rand’s conclusions and applying five minutes’ thought – which is, as far as I can tell, five minutes more than Rand herself ever did.
Next week: Henry Cameron and the Monkeysphere.
– OSM out
* I am sure that there is Roark/Keating slash out there. I am equally sure that I do not want to see it. Please don’t tell me where it is.