Dear Ayn Rand

Dear Ayn Rand,

If you are actually as much of an objectivist as your protagonists in The Fountainhead, then I'm not sure what the point of fan mail would be. But I read 727 pages of yours and now I'm going to write a few for you. Whether you read them or not is irrelevant. It is the act of creation that counts... or something like that.

I loved the first half of The Fountainhead. Everything up until the Stoddard Temple Trial around page 360 was enrapturing. I had warmed up to Howard Roark, the hero of your story.  There was this awesome rivalry/contrast between Roark and Peter Keating, the grade-grubbing valedictorian who ass-kissed his way up the corporate ladder. There was the crazy tension with Roark's lover/rape-victim, Dominique Francon. Roark was fighting his way into the architectural profession, and sticking to his guns. You were making solid points left and right. I was with you. Individualism is great. "Yay Capitalism"

But bad things started to happen after the Stoddard Temple Trial. For one, Peter Keating turns into a quivering mess, and barely manages to limp on for the rest of the book as a guilt-stricken, soulless, mentally addled husk of a man. Keating vs. Roark was what was really holding the book together for me, and destroying him by the half-way mark really deleveraged the tension. I mean, I bought one ticket for a nine-round bout between Roark and Keating. That's what you sold me at the beginning of your book- a character study of two men. But then you pulled a bait and switch. Instead the book turns out to be a contest between Howard Roark and one Ellsworth Toohey, a newspaper-column-writing, altruistic do-gooder. Toohey is supposed to be the living embodiment of a sinister, clandestine, communist cabal, intent upon destroying civilization and breaking the freedom-loving human spirit forever. Are you seeing the problem here? I was promised a nuanced character study contrasting the lives of two architects and I ended up with Superman v. Stalin.

Take it down a notch. Less is more. You laid it on thick, and it kind of got hokey. At one point, Ellsworth Toohey makes a long soliloquy about how civilization can be destroyed. He says he's going to make men guilty and corrupt so they lose their self-respect; he says he's going to destroy all standards so people can no longer differentiate between greatness and mediocrity. But as the list goes on, it becomes pretty obvious that we're now crossing a line over into Ayn Rand's list of personal pet peeves. By the end, Toohey is explaining how he's going to derail society by doing things like over-using the exclamation point and leaving the toilet seat up.

Dominique Francon started out a little bat-shit crazy, but her actions become erratic and inexplicable after the Stoddard Temple Trial. She's crazy over Roark because he takes her V-card, but she has to hurt Roark because... I think because that's what you do when you "like-like" someone... and you're five. That's fine, I guess. I can relate. I once had a crush on a girl when I was four. I threw sand in her eyes. Then Francon decides she has to marry Peter Keating, to punish herself... or maybe because it's the hard/spartan thing to do... or maybe to punish Roark some more... or maybe to punish Keating. I don't know. Someone's getting punished. But she's still desperately in love with Roark. And then she divorces Keating and marries a millionaire named Gail Wynand. And then she cheats on him with Roark, and gets another divorce and finally marries Roark and lives happily ever after with husband number three.

You're wearing the get-divorced-and-remarried device a little thin with this character, Rand. And what is Francon's deal, anyway? She has no creative energy or individualism; she just follows random men around and makes snarky hipster comments behind their backs. As protagonists go, Dominique is a lame duck. If I were Roark, I'd tell her to fuck off.

Speaking of snarky hipster comments, the dialogue in this book started out pretty good, but by the last third of the book, I had pretty well picked up on your formula for writing deep/witty/intense interaction. The formula goes something like this- everybody signals what they mean by doing the opposite. Everything's a paradox. The silence that said everything. His kindness was the greatest cruelty. She dominated him by surrendering completely. The politeness of her words betrayed how much she despised him. It was a cool way of talking the first 360 pages, but by the end of the book I was forcing myself to go back to the beginning of the page spread and read huge chunks of dialogue that my tortured mind had instinctively tried to skip over, like a pole vaulter trying to clear a snake pit.

My mind getting snared in the maw of your formulaic dialogue (The Great Escape)

The last hundred pages reveal Howard Roark to be a huge shit head. That's bad, because he's supposed to be the hero of a romance novel; and I mean "romance novel" in the long, dramatic, black-and-white, good vs. evil kind of way, not the fat, middle-aged housewife masturbating in the middle of the day kind of way. You even say in the introduction that Roark is supposed to be the ideal man. I found that hard to swallow.

Roark's cool enough for most of the novel. He strikes up a warm and intimate friendship with newspaper owner Gail Wynand, which is a first for Roark, who spent most of the novel as a loner. Gail and Howie sail around the world together, revealing their deepest thoughts to one another, sharing bottles of wine, taking swims in the ocean, and I assume, oiling each other up before each big day out in the sun. The book isn't clear whether they ever "go all the way" or not, but by the end of the cruise, they're pretty close.

Well one night Roark decides to blow up a half-erected building complex because it wasn't built to his design's original specifications. He gets arrested and Gail spends literally millions of dollars on Roark's defense, blowing huge wads of cash, and losing untold fortunes from lost advertising because Gail uses his newspaper to defend the guy who dynamited someone else's building complex. Roark gets off scot free, inexplicably, and then thanks Gail by porking Gail's wife, Dominique.

Now that's class.

Aside from the fact that this novel implodes on itself at an exponentially increasing rate from the second half on, the time I didn't spend enraptured by a good ending gave my mind plenty of time to wander over the holes in the underlying philosophy of your book. The basic premise of this book is that man dominates nature. You repeat it over and over again- the earth is a source of raw material to be exploited, molded and reshaped in the image of man. The claim is usually presented a priori, but you do mention that this position belongs to man because man has a unique creative and reasoning capacity among all animals. Elephants have a unique capacity among all animals. They happen to be the largest, heaviest animals on land. Does that imply that their destiny and purpose is to trample every other living thing underfoot?

The rugged individualism seems like a good thing. It was downright inspiring. But your absolutist insistence that the rights of the individual should never be sacrificed for the community, or that each individual following his own dominant strategy ultimately leads to the best result for all, runs aground on some well known examples where people follow their dominant, self-interested strategy to their own harm. The Tragedy of the Commons and The Prisoner's Dilemma are some examples that any college student would learn in their first Economics class. If you're going to write a 727 page manifesto on the subject, I would have liked to at least have seen these issues mentioned.

Cooperation is hard. Making yourself vulnerable by trusting your fellow man in pursuit of a larger pie for everyone is hard. Obeying the rules made by "the collective" while you watch someone get ahead by cheating or being selfish is hard. I'm always reminded of the traffic jams that happen at a place where two lanes merge into one. These jams are universally caused or made worse by a few idiots who insist upon passing by everybody, riding up the lane that is closing as far as they can, and then trying to merge in front of someone at the last second. A few people skip ahead, the others wait longer, and EVERYONE (including the pricks) waits longer than if those selfish pricks had just smoothly transitioned half a mile back like the sign said to.

Self interest can be a fine thing. Self esteem is absolutely critical. You shouldn't give a shit what other people think of you. You should be true to yourself. We shouldn't punish people who are successful. We should encourage initiative. But to hold up self interest as a panacea for the world's ills- that's just stupid, Rand.

Sebastian Braff


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