Cover of The Fountainhead
by Ayn Rand
Howard Roark laughed. (I approve of this. It asks a narrative question – who is this guy, and why did he laugh? – and I like short sentences anyway.)
He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him
. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. (Whoah, whoah, hold up. So far, it was all tight and Hemingway-esque. “The pants fit him. They felt good.” Now you suddenly switch to purple prose, with granite bursting in flight? I didn’t know that granite rocks flew, or exploded when they did decide to take wing. No.) The water seemed immovable, the stone flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays. (More purple prose. Hate it. Though I do smile at all the double-entendre action. Let’s try again.)
The lake below was only a thin steel ring that cut the rocks in half. The rocks went on into the depth, unchanged. They began and ended in the sky. So that the world seemed suspended in space, an island floating on nothing, anchored to the feet of the man on the cliff. (What? I think Ayn Rand was smoking a bowl here.)
His body leaned back against the sky.
It was a body of long straight lines and angles, each curve broken into planes. (Things are either curved, straight or angled. That pretty much covers it. Maybe the only other people in this book are Flat Stanley and the Blob.) He stood, rigid, his hands hanging at his sides, palms out. He felt his shoulder blades drawn tight together, the curve of his neck, and the weight of the blood in his hands. He felt the wind behind him, in the hollow of his spine. The wind waved his hair against the sky. His hair was neither blond nor red, but the exact color of ripe orange rind. (No man would ever describe his hair as “ripe orange rind.” He’d say, “I’m a red-head” or “I’m blond” or “I don’t know.”)
He laughed at the thing which had happened to him that morning (Oh, right. So funny!) and at the things which now lay ahead. (Yes — also hilarious. I laugh at that all the time. Maybe let’s use different ways to hint at backstory and do foreshadowing.)
He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh. (Enough with the laughing about things that may or may not have happened, and difficult plans, and thinking about not thinking. We can go to this well once or twice, but not every sentence.)
He tried to consider it. But he forgot. (Or maybe we can jump into that well and stay there forever.) He was looking at the granite.
He did not laugh (Oh, we’re NOT laughing now?) as his eyes stopped in awareness of the earth around him.
His face was like a law of nature— (You have got to be kidding me.)
End of Page 1
Notes from The Red Pen of Doom
I believe the readers of today – like me – don’t want (a) tons of purple prose, (b) paragraph after paragraph of character description or (c) 3.4 metric tons of purple prose that’s all character description and internal dialogue.
But there are bigger fish to fry here, both in the literary sense of Is This A Good Page One? and in the story sense.
Ayn Rand is a deity among conservatives, because her novels underpin what she calls the “philosophy” of objectivism, which says it’s quite unselfish to be selfish. This is obviously counter-intuitive and quite appealing in a juvenile kind of way, because hey, it’s now my moral duty to do whatever I want. The best way to take care of others is to only care about yourself. The surest path to aid the poor is to cut taxes for the rich. And so forth.
This philosophy intrudes upon the story. Roark, the hero of this novel, roughly has his way with Dominique, the heroine, when they first meet. She later describes it as rape. Dominique makes Sylvia Plath look mentally stable. To show her undying love for Roark, she marries … some rich man. Then she tries to destroy Roark, divorces that rich man to marry another rich dude, keeps on trying to destroy Roark, then finally divorces that other rich schmuck to marry Roark in the end, but only after Roark TRIES TO BLOW UP A BUILDING that he designed.
If you said “This is a book that makes a hero out of a selfish architect who’s a strong-willed, good-looking rapist and terrorist,” you’d kinda sorta be accurate. And yes, I read the entire book. Twice. I WROTE A PAPER ON IT.
So the first page does foreshadow a lot of things. Ayn Rand has “a frozen explosion of granite” in the second graf. She has a whole bunch of imagery and descriptions of Roark’s perfect body.
HOWEVER: If I hadn’t already read this book, I’d see this first page and think it was some kind of historical romance, with Roark’s kilt and dirk sitting over on that rock, his trusty horse waiting for him after he took a swim and rode off to rescue his favorite maiden, a red-haired beauty held captive by the twisted and disfigured Baron of Whateverthehell.
Otherwise, I don’t hate her writing per se. I merely despise it.
Usually, I can fix a line or a paragraph. Big chunks of this first page simply need to die. The best thing is to cut them out.
Does that whack about half of this first page? Yes.
Would that make it better? Yes.
There’s a weird mix of styles going on here. You get short, clipped sentences, tight and hard, with zero fatty modifiers. But then Ayn the Rand switches to long stretches of not only purple prose, but outright wackiness I expect from college sophomores writing flash fiction at three in the morning on the deadline day after hitting the bong FAR TOO HARD.
There’s a reason 12 publishers rejected this novel before it found a home. Hate the first page. Hate the hero, and the heroine who tries to destroy Roark because she loves him so much. Hate the story. Hate the “philosophy.” It’s a tough call, whether THE FOUNTAINHEAD or OUTLANDER are more deserving of being thrown across the room. But I’m going with THE FOUNTAINHEAD.
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.