Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in The Fountainhead or young Lance Mannion and a girl worth reading Ayn Rand for?
One happy fall, when I was nineteen and a sophomore in college, a girl I was madly in lust with let it be known that her favorite book in the world was The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. So I read it.
All in one sitting.
I stayed up all night and in the morning I went over to her place to ask her out to breakfast so we could discuss it.
I was rewarded with a very pleasant couple of weeks followed by a long weekend during which we didn’t see each other and realized that neither of us minded not seeing the other all that much. It was one of the easiest and gentlest breakups imaginable, although, since she was an actress, she had to add an element of drama. She arranged that we play out our goodbye scene late at night with me standing at the foot of the stairs to her apartment and her hiding behind the half-open door, sobbing loudly. I agreed not to hate her forever, she assured me it was her not me, and after five minutes of this the curtain came down. She went inside to read her reviews, and I went to buy donuts which I ate sitting by the river while I thought things over.
I came to no conclusions.
The funny thing was we never really discussed The Fountainhead. To this day I wonder what she liked so much about the book and why she thought it was important that I read it in order to “understand” her. Something to do with the integrity of an artist, I supposed at the time. But although I sympathized with Howard Roark in his struggle against the “mediocrities,” I didn’t think his genius gave him the right to blow up buildings or rape the boss’s daughter.
Maybe, I thought, she just loved the book for the same reason I loved David Copperfield . I didn’t know much about Rand including the fact she was supposed to be some sort of philosopher. I just thought she was a famous writer and, not knowing any better, I supposed that meant she was a good writer.
I decided I might understand things better---Rand, The Fountainhead, the girl I’d read the book for, myself---if I read one of Rand’s other books. I went to the library and checked out a copy of Atlas Shrugged.
It’s one thing to plow your way through a novel in the course of one night in the expectation that when you are done a beautiful girl will let you undress her.
Literary judgments tend to get put on hold.
With no hope of reward in the form of winning the affections of a lovely and obliging fellow pseudo-intellectual, your average nineteen year old is going to crack open even a novel by Tolstoy with an extremely critical eye.
Two chapters in and I was ready to throw the book out the window, and I would have, except that it was a very fat book and I was afraid it might kill someone in the quad below and back then I believed that if you started a book you were under an obligation to finish it.
Atlas Shrugged cured me of that belief by Chapter 10.
Nobody, I decided, could be obligated to read a book this goddamn awful.
But I pressed on. I read the whole thing. I wanted bragging rights. I wanted to be able to impress my friends and professors with the boast that I had read all 1200 pages of the worst written book in the English language.
No one was ever impressed.
One thing to note. Even after I’d finished Atlas Shrugged I still had no idea Ayn Rand was a philosopher. All I knew was that she had written a very long and very dull book. Reading Atlas Shrugged taught me something about The Fountainhead though.
It was a bad book too.
And from this I concluded that Ayn Rand was a bad writer.
I can’t remember when I learned that a lot of people overlooked her bad writing on the grounds that she was a philosopher and what her philosophy was. Before I got to grad school, I think. I immediately spotted two things wrong here.
Nobody had to excuse Camus’ writing.
And there was an obvious flaw in her thinking. Rand assumed it would be self-evident to everyone just who was a Howard Roark or a John Galt and who was not. It didn’t occur to her, or didn’t matter to her, that her philosophy of selfishness and self-indulgent narcissism would appeal to every self-infatuated little prick looking for an excuse to be as selfish and contemptuous of social norms as he liked. For every true Galt and Roark there would be dozens of “parasites” and “mediocrities” who believed Rand had given them permission to be sociopaths and treat other people as “mediocrities” and “parasites” without regard for their rights, needs, or feelings.
What kind of world would we be living in if every selfish, self-infatuated little prick decided he was a Howard Roark or a John Galt?
Seemed to me Dostoevsky had already asked and answered that one.
A world in which selfish, self-infatuated little pricks take axes to the heads of little old ladies.
Dostoevsky would probably point out that Crime and Punishment can be read as a parable.
So that was it. Bad writer. Lunatic thinker. Nothing else to see here. Move along.
For a long while afterwards the only time I thought about Ayn Rand was when I thought about that girl back in college.
I knew her books were still widely read, that they even turned up on high school and college reading lists. But I figured it was for the same reason that students and scholars still read Mein Kampf and The Prince, for the historical interest.
It wasn’t until I started spending time reading blogs that I found out that there were people reading Rand’s work and taking it seriously.
Who knew the world contained so many selfish, self-infatuated little pricks looking for permission to take axes to the heads of little old ladies?
This realization was sobering and depressing but not surprising. After all, what does Raskolnikov learn? That instead of being a superman, he’s just a selfish, self-infatuated little prick of an all too common sort. Types like him are a kopek a dozen.
So I was wrong about no one taking Rand seriously as a thinker.
But I remained convinced that no one could take her seriously as a writer.
No one could possibly read her books for the fun of reading them.
Well, I’ll tell you something else I’ve learned since I was a sophomore in college.
My own tastes in literature are just that. My own.
I’ve mentioned it in passing before, but I’ll go a little more in detail about it now. I enjoy Atlas Shrugged quite a bit, and will re-read it every couple of years when I feel in the mood. It has a propulsively potboilery pace so long as Ayn Rand’s not having one of her characters gout forth screeds in a sock-puppety fashion. Even when she does, after the first reading of the book, you can go, “oh, yeah, screed,” and then just sort of skim forward and get to the parts with the train rides and motor boats and the rough sex and the collapse of civilization as Ayn Rand imagines it, which is all good clean fun. Her characters are cardboard but they’re consistent — the good guys are really good in the way Rand defines “good,” and everyone else save Eddie Willers and the picturesquely doomed Cherryl Brooks are obnoxious shitheels, so you don’t really have to worry about ambiguity getting in the way of your zooming through the pages.
Rand is an efficient storyteller that way: You know early on what the rules of her world are, she sticks with those rules, and you as the reader are on a rail all the way through the story. It’s not storytelling that works for everyone, and it doesn’t work for me with every book I read. But if you’re in the mood not to work too much, it’s fine to have an author who points dramatically at the things she wants you to look at, and keeps the lights off the things she doesn’t. Basically, I find her storytelling restful, which I suppose isn’t a word used much to describe her technique, but which fits for how it works for me.
That’s John Scalzi, blogger extraordinaire and award-winning science fiction writer in a post called What I Think About Atlas Shrugged.
John isn’t making the case that Rand was a good writer in the way Dickens and Dostoevsky were. He’s only saying that as the teller of a ripping good yarn she knew what she was up to.
John’s post includes a nice anecdote about how Atlas Shrugged helped him survive a hellacious cross-country bus trip with his sanity intact and a just appreciation of Rand’s philosophy as laid out in the novel, to wit:
All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt. This is most obviously revealed by the fact that in Ayn Rand’s world, a man who self-righteously instigates the collapse of society, thereby inevitably killing millions if not billions of people, is portrayed as a messiah figure rather than as a genocidal prick, which is what he’d be anywhere else. Yes, he’s a genocidal prick with excellent engineering skills. Good for him. He’s still a genocidal prick. Indeed, if John Galt were portrayed as an intelligent cup of yogurt rather than poured into human form, this would be obvious. Oh my god, that cup of yogurt wants to kill most of humanity to make a philosophical point! Somebody eat him quick! And that would be that.
John then goes on in another post to imagine a world ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt.
At any rate, and obviously, it was John’s posts that got me thinking about that girl back in college and wondering once again what she saw in The Fountainhead that made her take it to heart.
As I said, she was an actress, which made her an artist like Howard Roark, but she wasn’t very good and, it turned out, she wasn’t committed to a life on the stage. She dropped out of school to marry a potter and follow him to his kiln back in Ohio.
Maybe he was her Howard Roark and to this day he’s smashing pots he’s sold to people who’ve had the nerve to put ugly flowers in them.
But maybe she just loved The Fountainhead because it was a ripping good yarn.
Always worth quoting. John Rogers on Ayn Rand:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.