“I don’t make comparisons. I never think of myself in relation to anyone else. I just refuse to measure myself as part of anything. I’m an utter egotist.”
For many years, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead has been a silent, yet palpable force emanating from my bookshelves. I’ve always wanted to read Ayn Rand for the same reason I wanted to read Moby Dick, and for the same reason I want to read Gone With The Wind and Infinite Jest. The Fountainhead was one of many white whales that I knew I had to conquer due to equal parts curiosity and necessity. Any epic American novel that important and that influential is unquestionably meant to be discovered and experienced, but the difficulty and sheer size both posed intimidating obstacles and for a long time, I opted to succumb to the distractions of newer, shorter, and more attractive books.
I don’t know what compulsion coerced me to finally pick it up and start reading it last week; I specifically remember my elated Reader’s High after finishing Meg Wolitzer’s excellent book The Interestings and being inspired to read another long, worthy book. And perhaps I was mindful of my New Year’s Resolution to read more Classics this year. Whatever the reason, whatever the impulse, I’m so glad I decided to read it.
Howard Roark, Architect – the protagonist, the hero – is an Outlier in the truest sense of the word. Talented, but misunderstood. Honest, but disliked. Smart, but unpopular. Respected, but feared. Unconventionally handsome. Notoriously different. Roark reminds me of Atticus Finch and Hester Prynne – strong, able characters who are easy to hate for all of the qualities that should make them likable. Isolated people who stick with their convictions in spite of popular opinion; people who are maddeningly unscathed by their damaged reputations; and people who are so purely good, independent and esteemed that the level of compassion they incite from the reader is borderline unbearable because of the impossibly unfair situations they wind up in.
Presumably, a 700-some odd page novel about architecture in the early 1900’s would be slow, dull and difficult to read. To my pleasant surprise, I found quite the opposite to be true. The book was well-paced, beautifully written and very digestible in spite of its length. The narrative spanned several decades, following Roark from the tail-end of his college career as a wide-eyed, idealistic student well into adulthood as a struggling professional. All of Rand’s characters from love interests to brutal enemies were well developed, brilliantly intertwined and polarizing. There was no neutral ground; there was no indifference. Readers inevitably chose sides and either loved or hated every character, interaction or plot point throughout the entire narrative.
As I was reading, I couldn’t help comparing The Fountainhead to one of my favorite long reads of all time – Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. Though drastically different, taking place centuries apart, I couldn’t stop myself from drawing parallels between the two novels. After all, both Jack from Pillars and Roark from The Fountainhead are two unquestionably brilliant architects who undergo extenuating circumstances with unadulterated vision and ambition and have their sights set on the most coveted women in their respective societies. They both pour their lives into their craft and they both exhibit debilitating patience in light of the ugliest, most conniving and calculating of adversaries. Both novels were epic. Both spanned a few decades, and not to mention – both Roark and Jack have unforgivably red hair!
It’s not often that a subject as random as architecture can captivate a reader, but architecture is one of my favorite subjects because I love the idea of it, and Rand and Follett describe and humanize it in a gorgeous way. Architecture is the truest form of functional art; the result of left and right-brained genius; the combination of physics and poetry. The accuracy and necessity of pairing balance and engineering with finesse and creativity is just a beautiful concept to me. I only know one actual real-life architect and he might be the brightest mind I have the pleasure of knowing, but like Roark and like Jack, my friend The Architect is so independent and intelligent that he floats on a lonely wavelength that transcends everyone else in a weirdly tragic way.
I suppose I loved The Fountainhead so much because I relate to Roark and his plights on a deeply personal level. His impossiblely unattainable expectations, his standards of beauty, his inability to compromise, and his unwillingness to settle for anything less than perfection when it comes to anything from his sketches, his buildings or his relationships – I aspire to be like him. I could only wish my life and values were that definitive and pure, even though I know they’re not. Perhaps I can only compare the other worldly, transcendental experience and joy I feel when reading incredible books to how Dominique Francon feels when she looks at beautiful buildings.
Reading this novel made me feel depressed, lonely and quite despairing at times. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes on multiple occasions – the love story in the Fountainhead was among the greatest, most passionate and heartbreaking I’ve ever read. Tumultuous, tempestuous – seemingly hopeless. Among the ranks of Jay Gatsby and Daisy. Jack and Aliena. Ygritte and Jon Snow. Peter Parker and Mary Jane.
However, this despair only made the contrasting uplift and inspirational components that much more powerful. I will always remember the catharsis and bright joy I felt at the climax of the tale – that magical pinnacle hidden in that massive brick of pages. I’ll never forget how unbelievably full and ebullient my heart was when I finished the last page of The Fountainhead, knowing that the world was a better place and though grossly unfair at times, life can be pretty damn beautiful.