The Fountainhead: Job-Hopper

SteppingStones

The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 10

John Erik Snyte excitedly tells his designers that their firm has the chance for a big, important commission. They’ve been hired to build a house for Austen Heller, the rich and well-connected libertarian writer (Heller is Rand’s literary stand-in for H.L. Mencken, if that helps you picture him).

The only complication is that Heller wants something new and different, he’s already rejected proposals by three other firms, and he’s picked a remote and difficult spot to build on:

Later that day Snyte crowded his five designers into a train, and they went to Connecticut to see the site Heller had chosen. They stood on a lonely, rocky stretch of shore, three miles beyond an unfashionable little town… they looked at a cliff rising in broken ledges from the ground to end in a straight, brutal, naked drop over the sea, a vertical shaft of rock forming a cross with the long, pale horizontal of the sea.

“There,” said Snyte. “That’s it.” He twirled a pencil in his hand. “Damnable, eh?”

Howard Roark has been working at Snyte’s firm for five months, but the time “stretched behind him like a blank”. He hasn’t cared about anything he’s done there enough to even remember it. But the Heller house speaks to him at a deep level. After days of work at the drafting board, he has a proposal:

The house on the sketches had been designed not by Roark, but by the cliff on which it stood. It was as if the cliff had grown and completed itself and proclaimed the purpose for which it had been waiting. The house was broken into many levels, following the ledges of the rock, rising as it rose, in gradual masses, in planes flowing together up into one consummate harmony. The walls, of the same granite as the rock, continued its vertical lines upward; the wide, projecting terraces of concrete, silver as the sea, followed the line of the waves, of the straight horizon.

The one good thing I’ll say for this is that it’s the closest Ayn Rand has come to describing a Howard Roark house in terms I can picture. It has “many levels” (so I guess the building is shaped like a staircase?), with sheer fortress-like granite walls and multiple terraces or balconies that project out over the sea.

I mean, okay. I’d agree that sounds like a modernist house. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m sure the right person would like it. Is that really what all the fuss was about?

This is a common problem that authors face when they have a hero who’s The Best Ever at something like art or music. If you just assert the hero’s greatness, the reader will want to know what makes him so darn special. But the harder you try to describe his achievements, the more you run the risk of diminishing them and making them sound mundane.

This is a case in point. It’s not enough for us to know that Roark builds houses with big windows and lots of geometric shapes. We have to believe that his houses are somehow perfect in a Platonic sense (oh, the irony!) – they have some unique and distinctive quality that makes them different from all others, even other modernist buildings; or that they have some sort of transcendent harmony such that not a line could be changed or a window moved without completely ruining them. You can use as many effusive metaphors as you want, but no actual building is going to faithfully create that impression.

It’s the same problem that the filmmakers of Atlas Shrugged faced in their casting: it’s impossible to use real human beings who are as physically distinct as Rand described them. The language necessarily falls short of any concrete reality.

Snyte does his usual thing, combining the ideas of his designers into a mix-and-match whole. Two days later, they’re all looking at the elaborate watercolor drawing that’s going to be presented to the client:

It was Roark’s house, but its walls were now of red brick, its windows were cut to conventional size and equipped with green shutters, two of its projecting wings were omitted, the great cantilevered terrace over the sea was replaced by a little wrought-iron balcony, and the house was provided with an entrance of Ionic columns supporting a broken pediment, and with a little spire supporting a weather vane.

Heller comes in to render his verdict on the proposal, and everyone metaphorically holds their breath:

“This,” said Heller suddenly, loudly, slamming his fist down on the drawing, and Snyte winced, “this is the nearest anyone’s ever come to it!”

“I knew you’d like it, Mr. Heller,” said Snyte.

“I don’t,” said Heller.

Heller wistfully says that the house is almost right, but it’s missing something, some “central idea” he can’t define. Roark pounces:

Roark turned. He was at the other side of the table. He seized the sketch, his hand flashed forward and a pencil ripped across the drawing, slashing raw black lines over the untouchable water-color. The lines blasted off the Ionic columns, the pediment, the entrance, the spire, the blinds, the bricks; they flung up two wings of stone; they rent the windows wide; they splintered the balcony and hurled a terrace over the sea.

It was being done before the others had grasped the moment when it began. Then Snyte jumped forward, but Heller seized his wrist and stopped him.

Snyte fails to appreciate the effort:

As Heller said nothing, Snyte felt free to whirl on Roark and scream: “You’re fired, God damn you! Get out of here! You’re fired!”

“We’re both fired,” said Austen Heller, winking to Roark. “Come on. Have you had any lunch? Let’s go some place. I want to talk to you.”

Roark went to his locker to get his hat and coat. The drafting room witnessed a stupefying act and all work stopped to watch it: Austen Heller picked up the sketch, folded it over four times, cracking the sacred cardboard, and slipped it into his pocket.

“But, Mr. Heller… ” Snyte stammered, “let me explain… It’s perfectly all right if that’s what you want, we’ll do the sketch over… let me explain…”

“Not now,” said Heller. “Not now.” He added at the door: “I’ll send you a check.”

Then Heller was gone, and Roark with him; and the door, as Heller swung it shut behind them, sounded like the closing paragraph in one of Heller’s articles. Roark had not said a word.

I’ve often complained that for someone who idolized capitalism the way she does, Rand made her heroes shockingly bad at business. But this scene shows that it’s really not just her heroes, it’s all her characters. Why was Snyte so furious that Roark scribbled all over the watercolor?

Yes, the text implies that Snyte has some kind of obsession with the sanctity of his drawings. But they already knew that Heller didn’t like it. It was worthless as soon as they found that out. For once, Roark was the one doing the reasonable thing by making a last-ditch effort to save the project (although really he should have just gone back to his desk and gotten one of the sketches he’d already done – but of course that wouldn’t have afforded the opportunity for his manly, dramatic pretend-demolition of the mongrelized watercolor).

However, I do have to question Roark’s sense of loyalty. Even though Snyte immediately backtracked and offered to produce another sketch more to Heller’s liking, Roark ignored him and walked out on his erstwhile employer, taking the big important client with him. Is this how you ought to treat someone who took a chance on you?

Remember, at the time Snyte hired him, Roark had been out of work so long and was so desperate he was reduced to reapplying to firms that had already rejected him. Snyte saved him from destitution at a crucial moment. And how does Roark reward him for this? By quitting and founding his own competing firm at literally the first opportunity he gets, poaching a major client in the process!

Such behavior would get you blacklisted in the real world, and for good reason. Basic ethics, not to mention common sense, suggests that it’s a bad idea to stab someone in the back after they helped you out in a big and risky way. But that’s a consideration that’s foreign to Randian protagonists, who regard other human beings as nothing but stepping stones they can tread on along their way toward getting whatever it is they ultimately want.

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