Frank Norris: “Octopus” (1901): Part One

Aren’t you ever going to learn any sense? Don’t you know that cheap transportation would benefit the Liverpool buyers and not us? Can’t it be fed into you that you can’t buck against the railroad? When you try to buy a Board of Commissioners don’t you see that you’ll have to bid against the railroad, bid against a corporation that can chuck out millions to our thousands? Do you think you can bid against the P. and S. W.? (661)

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Octopus, the title referring to the railroad trusts that dominated the American West in the late nineteenth century, is Frank Norris’ epic novel. It is the first part of his planned “Epic of Wheat.” Octopus would explore the production of wheat in the American west. The next novel (which is not collected by the Library of America so I will not read it now), The Pit, is about the processing and sale of wheat in Chicago. The unfinished final novel, The Wolf, would have looked at famine relief in Europe, ending the epic with the consumption of wheat. Norris died before he could begin work collecting material on the final novel. The trilogy was as much about power as it was about wheat. The Octopus was one of the best novels I have ever read on power of capitalism to squeeze and exploit producers and the difficulty of opposing that power from within the system.

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Much of the tension in the first half of the novel is about the different strategies of San Joaquin valley ranchers to oppose the growing power of the railroad over their lives. By the period described in the novel, the farmers of the west were transformed from subsistence farmers into petty businessmen cash croppers, tied into market networks that they did not create or control. From the perspective of the ranchers, the railroads are a malevolent force, an almost Lovecraftian horror.

Again and again, at rapid intervals in its flying course, it whistled for road crossings, for sharp curves, for trestles; ominous notes, hoarse, bellowing, ringing with the accents of menace and defiance; and abruptly Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus. (617)

There is an entire host of issues brought up on the ranches by the presence of the railroad. The price of land is set by the railroad companies that claim that their “improvements” demand compensation in higher land prices and freight rates. The farmers, regardless of the success of a harvest, are tied to steady or rising rates. (The novel is set during some hard time for the ranchers, threatening smaller land holders with bankruptcy). Many of the farmers are indebted and are hoping for a “bonanza” year after a couple years of drought in order to pay off their debts. The high railroad rates threaten their recovery. Another issue had to do with ownership and pricing of land owned by the railroads but improved by the ranchers who leased the land. The railroads eventually threaten to sell this land to speculators. One of the more prominent men in the small community of ranchers, Magnus Derrick, had a history of being active in politics and sees the solution in political action. He hopes to elect members of the Interstate Commerce Commission and the Railroad Commission in order to keep the rates low. Others are more skeptical and confess the need to bride candidates directly to prevent them from becoming tools of the railroads. Another rancher, Annixter, reflects a more radical voice who sees politics as ultimately corruption and expresses total fatalism over their prospects of resistance. He refers to previous failed efforts to mobilize the regions farmers (perhaps suggest the era of the Farmers Alliance and the Populists although the inspiration for the plot took place around 15 years before those movements took off). Despite their differences, these ranches essentially are calling for a democratic economy in which they can have a say over the price of freight, which when rose too high means the difference between destitution and survival (regardless of how hard they work or how lucky they are in a harvest).

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The signs of a farming economy in transformation are everywhere in the novel and are particularly conspicuous in the descriptions of the technological transformations taking place on the ranches. At the same time, the collective efforts during the plowing season (described in chapter four of part one) harken back to old American values of cooperation and rural solidarity, something rapidly being undone by the forces of the railroads and industrial agriculture. The collective labor in raising a barn are other memories of the American agrarian ideal. The romantic side of American rural life is represented by the sheep rancher Vanamee and the poet Presely. He sustained a mystical relationship with the land, unlike the more business approach of the larger ranch owners, especially Derrick. He is also the one who sustained a real religious perspective, cultivated by his mystical relationship with the land.

What I found most striking in the first half of this novel is how fearful the ranchers were of the railroad. The language that runs through the novel is that of a horror novel. “[T]he leviathan with tentacles of steel, to opposed which meant to be ground to instant destruction beneath the clashing wheel. . . . A leviathan with a heart of steel, knowing no compunction, no forgiveness, no tolerance; crushing out the human atom with soundless calm, the agony of destruction sending never a jar, never the faintest tremor through all that prodigious mechanisms of wheels and cogs.” (719, 720) The three major responses Derrick (fight with reason and argument), Osterman (resist with all force), and Annixter (fatalism) are all logical responses to this overwhelming and malevolent power.

Part one of The Octopus ends with the organization of the ranchers into a political force. The railroad issues letters to the ranchers (who are tenants) that their land will be sold on the market at rates that none of them can afford (they were earlier promised 2.50 an acre). This emerges from rage over the railroads schemes and the charisma of Osterman. They form what is in essence a local farmers’ alliance. “Everyone one of us here to join it, to form the beginnings of a vast organization, banded together to death, if needs be, for the protection of our rights and homes. Are you ready? Is it now or never? I call for a League.” (797) Magnus Derrick is elected the president of this organization. The stage is set for an epic confrontation between producers and capital.

“Legal means first; if those fail—the shotgun.” (796)

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Frank Norris: “McTeague” (1899): Part Two

The second half of Frank Norris’ McTeague examines the rapid decline of the McTeague and Trina as a result of their increased obsession over five thousand dollars of lottery winnings. Trina, a miser, wants to hold onto that as an untouchable nest egg, while working hard to add to it. McTeague, desiring to enjoy a slightly better life hopes to use the money. Things change for the worse when Trina’s jealous cousin reports to the state of California that McTeague is practicing dentistry without a diploma. Eventually, he has to shut down his business. Trina’s unwillingness to touch the $5,000 leads to worsening conditions. They move into a series of more humble dwellings. McTeague begins abusing his wife, taking on the strange habit of violently biting her. He starts to drink and becomes less and less a part of Trina’s life. Trina, meanwhile, loses her fingers due to some type of chemical poisoning brought by her overwork on small Noah’s ark figurines, which forms her major income. She has to take a job as a dishwasher. She takes her $5,000 and converts it into gold and to actualize her fantastical wealth. McTeague returns to steal the money, killing her in the process. He escapes to desert and runs into Marcus and the two die in Death Valley, fighting over the money to their last breathes. It is all rather horrifying to watch and makes for a great novel. I have nothing to add to my initial analysis, except to say that I find it holds through the end of the novel. The fetishization of gold was actually institutionalized in American monetary policy and had real consequences in how people interacted with each other. While the $5,000 was a fair amount of money in those days, it was, not really that much. All the characters seem to make it something more than what it was (a way to make life just a little bit easier). In this sense, all of these characters are mentally ill in their relationship with money.

This decline is often heart wrenching to read. I argued last time that McTeague’s love for Trina was a fetish in its own way, but the evolution of his hatred for her is very real.

His rage loomed big within him. His hatred of Trina came back upon him like a returning surge. He saw her small, prim mouth, her narrow blue eyes, her black mane of hair, and uptilted chin, and hated her the more because of them. [Notice he still sees her like a doll.] Aha, he’d show her; he’d make her dane. He’d get that seven dollars from her, or he’d know the reason why. He went through his work that day, heaving and hauling at the ponderous pianos, handling them with the east of a lifting crane, impatient for the coming of evening, when he could be left to his own devices. (521)

His strange abuse of Trina even suggests his perception of Trina as little more than an ornament, becoming something he chews on when frustrated.

What thing I would like to dwell on is the unfortunate consequences of professionalization. Norris lives through a time when the line between professional and artisan was still not clear. The movement away from folk practitioners was clear by 1900. Midwives, as historians have well documented, were almost entirely eliminated by male physicians. McTeague was not a great dentist perhaps, but he was competent, having learned under an apprenticeship. Lacking book knowledge, he was nonetheless capable of doing his job. It is not clear that a diploma would have made him a better dentist. When the letters begin coming from the government, both McTeague and Trina are baffled that it is that big of a deal. (Norris continued to refer to McTeague as “the dentist” even after he was kicked out of the professional, suggesting he shared that point of view.) As McTeague puts it: “I ain’t going to quit for just a piece of paper.” (449)

It is quite clear to me that professionalization had played a role in class war in the last century and a half, consciously relocating economic and social power from one group of people to another. Whatever protections professionalization may have provided to the public (and that is almost always the justification) could be achieved in other ways. Professionalization also works to inflate the cost of certain services beyond reason (hundreds of dollars for a doctor’s visit antibiotic prescription for instance). Now I am not sure it is possible to go back to the wild west days when there was no official registration for professionals, but it is critical to move away from the fetish for the diploma and revive a respect for craft and good training.

Still from the film version "Greed"

Still from the film version “Greed”

So I will leave with that question. What will be the fate of the professions in anarcho-communism? They seem to be a product of industrial capitalism and have clearly been a tool of class warfare by the elite and the educated. There are many reservoirs of knowledge and talent that are not backed up by a degree. We actually see this every day, as artisans and skilled workers reveal practical understanding of complex systems that may be unknown to theoretical experts. Personally, I still cringe when people defend their position based on their academic credentials. (It seems to me to be a very arrogant appeal to authority.) Anyway, could McTeague be a dentist after the revolution?

Watch the movie version here.

Frank Norris: “McTeague” (1899): Part One

The major theme of Frank Norris’ breakout novel McTeague is clearly fetishization. Primarily, it is the fetish for money and gold, which is given superhuman characteristics by almost all of the characters. At the same time we notice the fetish for people, particularly the dentist McTeague’s infatuation with his patient Trina. Other items are given a similar treatment, such as the diploma (which in the age of professionalization is lifted above talent, training, and experience) and the sign that McTeague desires to have in from of his “Dental Parlors.” All of the tragedy of the novel comes from giving these things almost divine significance. While we can label how Trina and McTeague come into money as greed, it is much beyond that. Money (and other things) really become idols.

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As the novel opens, we meet McTeague, a rather dull dentist. He entered the craft by working with an artisan dentist before professionalization became that important (this becomes crucial later on in the story). He runs a small dentist office and makes enough to support his life. McTeague, despite calling himself “doctor,” is really of the working class. He practices his craft like a craftsman. The books on his shelves are really for show. His best friend is named Marcus and they share beers every week. Marcus is the limit of McTeague’s social circle. Things change when Marcus brings his cousin Trina (who he is courting) to have a couple teeth fixed. McTeague, enamored with the elegant beauty of Trina, makes a bold decision to fix her mouth rather than simply pull two teeth. It leads to a series of visits. Eventaully, McTeague falls in love with Trina and begins courting her. Marcus agrees to step aside for his friend. Eventually, McTeague and Trina agree to marry. Before the marriage, Trina wins $5,000 in the lottery. (I put this into a historical currency converter—using 1890—and found a purchasing power of $120,000 in current U.S. dollars.) This is a nice nest egg, but not really what one could retire on. In those days of high interest rates, it did mean the couple could save the money and enjoy a steady and modest income from the interest. Marcus, of course, regrets immediately his choice not to pursue Trina himself.

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The money becomes the main frustration in their marriage. Trina refuses to spend any of the original $5,000, even to furnish an apartment. She is meanwhile working on making small animals for Noah’s Ark displays and is carefully saving in unknown amount of money (she always claims poverty but it is at least a few hundred dollars more squirreled away). McTeague this remains the sole breadwinner. Their income supplemented by interest from the $5,000. Spending any money becomes a battle in the household. Furthermore, Marcus is constantly resentful of what he sees as the loss of $5,000 that he could have won through courting Trina himself.

Here is a sample of Trina’s rhetoric, after McTeague made a payment on a new apartment in hopes of moving and upgrading their life.

You’ve got to pay the first month’s rent, anyhow—to forfeit it. Oh, you are so stupid! There’s thirty-five dollars just thrown away. I shan’t go into that house; we won’t move a foot out of here. I’ve changed my mind about it, and there’s water in the basement besides. Thirty-five dollars just thrown out the window. Oh , you are the thick-wittedest man that I ever knew. Do you think we’re millionaires? Oh, to think of losing thirty-five dollars like that.” (407)

At the mid-point in the novel, McTeague and Marcus’ friendship is shattered by jealousy over the money, reflected in a picnic wrestling match turned violent.

The money, the $5,000, is basically imaginary in that it is not being used. McTeague does not understand why it is not being used to make their life easier or more comfortable. For Trina, preserving that money is paramount. At one point, when she breaks down and loans McTeague some money she does it with silver (not gold) coins from what she was saving. The nest-egg cannot be touched. From Norris’ perspective, this is clearly an irrational activity. It parallels a second, similar story. McTeague’s neighbor Maria Macapa tells stories about how she was rich in her youth, suggesting that she still has some golden plates. Another neighbor, Zerkow, always wants to hear the stories about the gold dishes and has a similar longing for them as Marcus has for Trina’s $5,000. In practice, however, the gold plates and the $5,000 are equally as real. Both exists as imaginary depositories of wealth and have immense psychological power over those who imagine it.

McTeague is not blameless, although it is easy to see Trina as the worst miser. McTeague has his own fetishes, particularly for Trina herself, who he treats like a pretty doll. “He saw her as he had seen her the day that Marcus had introduced them: saw her pale, round face; her narrow, half-open eyes, blue like the eyes of a baby; her tiny, pale ears, suggestive of anaemia; the freckles across the bridge of her nose; her pale lips; the tiara of royal black hair; and, above all, the delicious poise of the head, tipped back as through by the weight of all that hair—the poise that thrust out her chin a little, with the movement that was so confiding, so innocent, so nearly infantile. (318)

From the film version called "Greed."

From the film version called “Greed.”

Another important element of the story is the alienation between McTeague and Trina. McTeague seems happy (when not fighting about money) to have his doll. We get a closer glimpse at Trina’s feelings of horror about committing her life to who she learns is a stranger. McTeague, for his part, never made an effort to understand Trina. We as readers do not learn she is a miser until well into the story. “She could not love him. It has all been a dreadful mistake, and now it was irrevocable; she was bound to this man for life. If it was as bad as this now, only three weeks after her marriage, how would it be in the years to come? Year after year, month after month, hour after hour, she was to see this same face, with its salient jaw, was to feel the touch of this enormous red hand, was to hear the heavy, elephantine tread of those huge feet.” (393–394) Of course, we should question as social system that gives women few options accept marriage. Here is the foundation of the critique of modern marriage. If we cannot really know each other due to the liquid status of the world, how can we pretend to understand a spouse? Trina makes due by creating yet another fetish. She constantly demands that McTeague express his undying love for her. His “love” so expressed becomes like the money in the bank. It is something she can rely on but is immaterial.

 

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part Two

All this he had felt before; it was his old enemy, but now with this second attack began a new and even stranger sensation. In his distorted wits he fancied that he was in some manner changing, that he was becoming another man; worse than that, it seems to him that he was no longer human, that he was sinking, all in a moment, to the level of some dreadful beast. (203–204)

In the second half of Frank Norris’ novel Vandover and the Brute we painfully observe the steady decline of our hero until he is transformed into a proletariat. While we are led to feel sorrow for Vandover’s decline, it is important to remember that few of his contemporaries got to enjoy a young adulthood of comparable ease and pleasure. Thanks to the heavily mortgaged schemes of his father, Vandover lived a life of ease, pursuing his art, his education, and nurturing the “brute” through a life committed to cheap amusements. He never really needed to learn a craft that may have saved him (such as artisanal painting). As I argued in my last post, Vandover is not fully to blame for this. He was a product of his environment and we find it hard to blame him for seeking out comradeship and community in a world growing progressively more competitive and anti-humanist (social Darwinism is a hidden sub-text of the novel and in a strange way Vandover is the enemy of social Darwinism through his emotional generosity). To read Vandover as a hero does not take accepting much more than this, and acknowledging that his decline was really for all the right purposes, although made inevitable by his naivety.

The chain of events of Vandover’s decline began with the suicide of his girlfriend Ida, who he seduced and impregnated. This was devastating but not itself enough to lead to the triumph of “the brute.” Vandover follows this news with an overseas ocean voyage. The ship sank and Vandover was able to express self-sacrifice and solidarity. In fact, as I am suggesting, this was where his personal strengths lay. After returning home, his father died. He lost someone who was very important to him, more than he was willing to confess. This was also the start of his financial troubles. He learned from the lawyers that his father was not as well-financed as he thought. Having a career as a lawyer allowed him to life a comfortable life on top of his investments. Vandover is told that living just on those investments would require a drastic downgrading of his expectations. The properties were all heavily mortgaged. Still, with the rents and a significant bond, Vandover could enjoy a regular income. This, for a while, sustains his life and his art.

The next catastrophe came when Vandover was sued by Ida’s family for causing her suicide. This provided an opportunity for his lawyer friend, Geary, to take advantage of him. Vandover did not fully realize that he was being conned by both Ida’s family and the lawyer. He was simply too willing to believe the best in people. Geary knows the family will get little in court, but he figures a settlement may allow him to purchase Vandover’s properties cheaply. He talks Vandover into a scheme. Settle the lawsuit and raise the money by selling a large portion of his rentals to Geary (who has plans of his own to upgrade them). Vandover, personally devastated by the lawsuit, agrees just to make his troubles go away. This forces Vandover to painting as an artisan at a paint shop, something he dreads but it does allow him to make enough to survive.

It is all a steady decline from this point. Vandover begins gambling and loses the rest of his property and bonds (either by giving them away or losing them at games of chance). He loses his job at the print shop and by the final chapters he is homeless and penniless. He takes a job for Geary cleaning the properties that he once owned.

One easy reading of this is as a morality tale, in which Vandover finally is forced to pay for his life of cheap pleasures, waste, and sloth. I find this too simplistic, and ignores how sympathetic a character Vandover is. Rather than working as a warning, we are made to feel that given similar circumstances we would be as susceptible to “the brute” as Vandover was. Indeed, it is hard to identify what he really did wrong. His decline was carefully orchestrated by others, or emerged logically from his environment.

Another reading is that Vandover is living the process of proletarianization that accompanies maturing capitalism everywhere. He began the novel as a clear member of the bourgeoisie, but through a steady process of manipulation by people of greater legal talents, his wealth is usurped. Contributing to this reading is that Vandover does not simply become a drunken vagrant. Norris carefully moved Vandover step by step into the working class.

I guess you can’t give me any work that would be too dirty for me! I want to be honest, Mister Geary. I want to be honest; I’m down and I don’t mean not offense. Charlie, you and I were old chums once at Harvard. My God! To think I was a Harvard man once! Oh, I’m a goner now and I ain’t got a friend. When I was in the paint-shop they paid me well. I’ve been in a paint-shop lately painting the little pictures on the safes, little landscapes, you know, and lakes with mountains around them. I pulled down my twenty dollars and findings! (245—246)

Notice with me that Vandover is as horrified by his loss of companionship and the loss of his art as he is of the loss of his invested wealth.

Next, I will look at McTeague, which is in some ways the inverse story, where a working class person comes across wealth, leading to very different character arcs. Importantly these two novels were written simultaneously in 1894 and 1895.

Frank Norris: “Vandover and the Brute” (1895, published in 1914): Part One

This blog has been quiet for a week or so. The reason for this is that I was stricken with a fairly nasty sore throat early last week. Following that was the “Sunflower” student protests in Taiwan, which occupied my attention. Finally, I started reading Henry David Thoreau’s books, starting with A Week and found that I needed more time to fully understand and appreciate it. So after a reboot, I picked up my Library of America volume of Frank Norris’ novels, which I love. This was not an unfortunate refocusing. I have long wanted to do a series on industrializing America, covering the period from 1880 until the Great Depression. This period contains some of my favorite American writings, including the great (and in my opinion underappreciated) Frank Norris.

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Frank Norris

Frank Norris died tragically young at 32. Despite his youth he left a fairly impressive body of work of four novels, the last of which was published in 1914 (over a decade after his death), although was written while he was at Harvard. I will start with this novel, Vandover and the Brute, since it appears first in the volume and was the first novel he completed. Published during his life were three other novels: McTeague, The Octopus, and The Pit. These last two made up the first two novels in an incomplete trilogy surrounding the production, sale, and consumption.  The Library of America chose not to include The Pit, so we are left with just these three novels and some of his shorter non-fiction work. We will have to manage.

Vandover and the Brute is a quite rich and entertaining novel about an artist who graduates from Harvard but through bad habits and ill-luck is driven into poverty. On the surface, it is a reverse Horatio Alger story and reads as a morality tale. Certainly Vandover shares some of the blame for his decline, but I would like to suggest that he is not entirely at fault. He wrestled with demons, but Norris is not so simple of a writer to blame the “beast” alone for Vandover’s fall. He was also destroyed by the society around him, its expectations and its pressures. Norris wants us to sympathize with Vandover, which makes it difficult for us to take him as a lesson in what not to be. In this post and the next, I would like to argue that Vandover’s “beast” is as much an invention of Vandover’s society as it is a real thing. It becomes, for outsiders and often for Vandover, the scapegoat for his failure. Unwilling to accept the social causes of his poverty, he looks inward and blames his beast. The reality is, even had Vandover totally suppressed these negative characteristics, he would have been defeated.

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Some of the context of Vandover’s decline was inherited. He was raised with the false sense of wealth. Vandover’s father was a lawyer who was able to use to the system to create the false facade of wealth, an all too common strategy in Gilded Age America. He took two mortgages on various properties. The first to purchase the property, the second to buy another property. Thus he created a chain of rental units, heavily mortgaged. As long as the interests payments were less than the rents, he was able to provide for himself a nice monthly income. Making little effort to pay off the loans, he ensured that this wealth would always be fragile. In fact, it was really a near criminal act. It did allow Vandover to grow up in relative luxury and allowed him to pursue his art.

Vandover was a talented artist and could have started his career right away, but he want to Harvard as expected by his father and colleagues. He also sustained an appreciation for vulgar passions, but again this was largely a product of his peer group. It is not clear he got much pleasure from smoking, drinking and playing around with girls. His more authentic pleasures came from his work as an artist and his never-ending work on his masterpiece, a portrait of a wounded soldier fighting a final losing battle with a lion. He approached the vulgar side of life with almost intellectual curiosity.

When he returned from Harvard, Vandover fails to take responsibility for his life by getting a job as an artisan painter. His sense of entitlement and the very real support from his father lead him to pursue his masterpiece, even though it means he never is able to create for himself an independent foundation of his life, like many of his friends do. This keeps him in a more juvenile life, where the “brute” is more alive.

Gradually Vandover allowed his ideas and tastes to be molded by this new order of things. He assumed the manners of these young men in the city, very curious to see for himself the other lower side of their life that began after midnight in the private rooms of fast cafes and that was continued in the heavy musk-laden air or certain parlours amid the rustle of heavy silks. Slowly the fascination of this thing grew in him until it mounted to a veritable passion. His strong artist’s imagination began to be filled with a world of charming sensuous pictures. (21)

Vandover has a strong desire to be part of society, unfortunately, he lives in a world in which community is being rapidly degraded by industrialization. What is left is the stuffy, banal middle class culture that is expected of him but does not very much interest him, and the culture of the cafes and other public amusement, full of cheap liquor and cheap sex. He floats between the two with relative ease. His disaster comes when he seduces a well-off girl, Ida, at one of these low-brow parlors. When she becomes pregnant, she kills herself and Vandover is subtly accused of seducing Ida in her death notice. He is unable to handle the moral burden of his guilt. Never before has the life of the “brute” faced such consequences. His response to this is actually quite fruitful for him and allows him to spend part of his life more authentically, but it requires leaving home and taking a long trip on a passenger ship.

I will end for now at this point with the conclusion that Vandover’s pliable nature helped nurture the “brute.” It must be added, however, that Vandover is not so unlike many of us, eager for community. The early industrial city was destroying the communities that Vandover’s father grew up in. Some certainly thrive in the social Darwinian world that industrialism produced. We will see in the second half how one of Vandover’s friends is able to successful take advantage of this situation. I suspect that most of us are closer to Vandover, and face with terror the unrelenting loneliness of the world we live in. Cheap amusements fill in that hole in our lives.