Ellen's Reviews > Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
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did not like it
bookshelves: novels
Recommended for: My father, who'd like Frank Wheeler

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On my fling-o-meter scale, Revolutionary Road is a well-traveled book, having been flung (why does this past participle sound so ungainly?) across the room several times. The initial trip occurred when Richard Yates gratuitously threw in this bit of over-writing in the first chapter:
At first their rehearsals had been held on Saturdays—always it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white , the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shriveled snow” (4)

It was the “hummocks of the earth” lying “naked and tender” among the “curds of shriveled snow” that made me yell fuck, and send the book airborne. During these outbursts, my golden retriever always gets up and heads toward a corner in the room, nose to the wall, like one of those doomed characters in the Blair Witch Project.

The book fails on many levels.

Characterization - It takes some doing to make Franzen's characters in the Corrections look warm and fuzzy by comparison. In RR, the protagonist, Frank Wheeler, offers no redeeming qualities. Our inability to identify with Frank or give a rat's ass what happens to him prevents the book from achieving its touted status as an American tragedy. It's a tragedy all right, but one of bad writing and poorly-executed characters, rather than pathos. Frank Wheeler may be the most self-absorbed, premeditated character ever created. This man could not pick his nose without first deciding what angle might best favor the nose picking and if it could be done in an off-hand, manly sort of way.

Throughout, these brittle, self-absorbed, snotty, angst-ridden (for no particular reason) characters drink and smoke copious amounts. Their aimless path, similar to the circular journey of characters in The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby is about the only aspect Yates has in common with Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to whom he is equated, by David Hare, one of the gushing, drunken critics quoted on the book's back cover. However, I cared about Nick Carraway, Jay Gatsby, Jake Barnes, and possibly even Brett Ashley. Yates' characters do not arouse my sympathy. Frank's obsessive fascination with his own psyche, April's confused and curiously unexplained actions, Shep's doglike devotion, and Milly's blankness work against what is, ostensibly, a character-driven novel.

Theme - As far as I could tell the only "characteristically American theme"--a carefully vague phrase used by another critic quoted on the book's back cover--exemplified is something like when "manhood was in flower." Frank and April's planned relocation to Paris is proposed by April, who in a crescendo of wifely devotion and guilt, declares herself a selfish bitch who's never given Frank the time he's needed to find himself and bring his genius to fruition. Their intended escape from suburbia brings Frank and April closer, ramping up their love life and uniting them with a sense of superiority as they gleefully break the “news” to their less enlightened friends.

The book’s lack of any sort of moral compass contributes to its failure. The manhood in flower theme is embarrassing, rather than noble. Consider the following, which the reader should somehow take seriously (!?). Here Frank picks through the women in his life, dissects their physical attributes, and declares them lacking—none of them worthy enough to lift him to manly triumph:
But as college wore on he began to be haunted by numberless small depressions….It nagged him, in particular, that none of the girls he’d known so far had given him the sense of unalloyed triumph. One had been very pretty except for unpardonably thick ankles, and one had been intelligent, though possessed of an annoying attempt to mother him, but he had to admit that none had been first-rate. Nor was he ever in doubt of what he meant by a first-rate girl, though he’d never come close enough to one to touch her hand. There had been two or three of them in the various high schools he’d attended, disdainfully unaware of him in their concern with college boys from out of town; what few he’d seen in the army had most often been seen in flickering miniature, on strains of dance music, through the distant golden windows of an officers’ club…” (23, emphasis mine).

But enough. The book took another trip across the room, and I felt like Dorothy Parker when she wrote, “at this point Tonstant Weader twowed up.”

Like Shakespeare’s fools, who often penetrate the layers of deceit and spout words of wisdom, John Givings, the crazy son of Helen Givings, theoretically serves to offer up moments of Truth. Helen Givings and her husband have put their son in a mental health facility, and Helen thinks it would be “good” for their son, John, to talk to other young people. Thus, the ill-fated Sunday visits at the Wheeler’s home. But John’s truths are less than dependable. At one point, John channels Ayn Rand. After first mocking April, John is impressed by her frank response and provides this Randean pronouncement:
[John:] stared at her for a long time, and nodded with approval. “I like your girl, Wheeler,” he announced at last. “I get the feeling she’s female. You know what the difference between female and feminine is? Huh? [No. But sadly we find out.:] Well, here’s a hint: a feminine woman never laughs out loud and always shave her armpits. Old Helen in there is feminine as hell. I’ve only met about a half dozen females in my life, and I think you got one of them here. Course, come to think of it, that figures. I get the feeling you’re male. There are aren’t too many males around, either” (201).

I picked up the just-airborne book and finished this sucker, but there isn’t much more to write. The book is a muddled, mawkish, maudlin tribute to some time and place I’d like to think never existed.

In sum, just picture a more existential martini-laden white collar version of the theme song to Archie Bunker:

Boy, the way Glen Miller played.
Songs that made the Hit Parade.
Guys like us, we had it made.
Those were the days!
Didn't need no welfare state.
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days!
And you knew where you were then!
Girls were girls and men were men.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
January 13, 2010 – Shelved
January 16, 2010 –
page 145
40.85% "Endless male angst - meanwhile, this protagonist is an asshole."
January 16, 2010 – Shelved as: novels

Comments Showing 1-50 of 108 (108 new)


message 1: by David (last edited Jan 21, 2010 09:48AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

David Okay. I am glad someone else on this site finally had problems with this book like I did. But your review (contemptuous) seems curiously at odds with your rating (three stars? really?). Edit: Never mind. You changed your rating to one star.

I didn't care much for this book either. I thought it was, at best, a merely serviceable entry in suburban anomie genre. I don't think I had a problem with the book because Frank Wheeler was a prick/moron -- which doesn't preclude a good book -- but because these characters just weren't very interesting. Revolutionary Road is one of those tired, tasteful, puffed-up, self-important midcentury novels -- one that's often touted as an exemplar of that indefinable and nebulous category known as 'the Great American Novel.' Ptooey, I say! And pure hokum.

Maybe it's because I live a life of suburban anomie that I don't like reading about it very much; the Wheelers are merely tourists and interlopers in my native land, in that respect, to the extent that they are unremarkable people who imagine that they deserve a remarkable life. Where does this drive come from? In my experience, most of the dullards who settle in the cultural wastelands of American society are quite satisfied with or desirous of the lives they are living. I am the one who truly deserves more! (Yup. I said it!) But the story of my misadventures in this palliative, water-downed half-world wouldn't be a stiff, formal prestige-novel like Revolutionary Road; it'd be discernibly more manic... and Kafkaesque.

So there it is. I resent these boring characters and the duration of my life that they sopped up. They can't even make their 'crisis' interesting. And while reading this novel, one (if one is I) can't quite escape the realization that this novel is largely intended for an audience of similarly pointless, misguided, dull people. For them, I imagine that it reads less like a tragedy than a cautionary tale. ('Maybe we should just move to Santa Fe instead of Paris!')


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I recently discovered that I more or less hate the film adaptation to the point that I think I'll hate the book as well. I can't imagine they're drastically different. This one's about to be booted off the to-read list...

Good review, Ellen. And good commentary as well, David.


message 3: by Ellen (last edited Jan 21, 2010 10:04AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen David wrote: "Okay. I am glad someone else on this site finally had problems with this book like I did. But your review (contemptuous) seems curiously at odds with your rating (three stars? really?).

I didn'..."


Oh, thanks for pointing out the three-star rating. That was just an oops. My average rating is 2.63, which is about the lowest I've seen here. The one star is a gift.

I brought up Frank's prick/moron status only because the book was touted by many as a tragedy, and I think you need to identify or care about characters on some level to view their fate as tragic. But you're right; they're also remarkably uninteresting, and even more so - if that's possible - in the leaden performances in the movie version, which I had to turn off.

I live in the suburbs as well, but it's not really tragic. I'd probably be a bit of an agoraphobe no matter where I lived, so it doesn't much matter. The suburbs are considered the dullard mothership, but I think dullards are readily available nearly anywhere.

But please write your book. From what I've read of your writing, it would be a hell of a lot better than Yates, and more interesting.

I don't think the Wheelers would be happy in any location. And whatever Yates was aiming to do with this lifeless book dwindled into a "tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."


Ellen MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "I recently discovered that I more or less hate the film adaptation to the point that I think I'll hate the book as well. I can't imagine they're drastically different. This one's about to be boot..."

While Frank's endless ruminations aren't interesting - or interesting only in the sense of horrified fascination - they at least offer some texture. The movie doesn't even attempt to provide context, so you have a caricature of an already bad book.

It's as bad as The Stepford Wives, a horrible book, made into a horrible movie, and then for some God only knows reason re-made into another horrible movie.

Unless you have a tin ear, really thick skin or a highly evolved sense of humor, writing the script for this dreck must have been excruciating.


Ellen David wrote: "Okay. I am glad someone else on this site finally had problems with this book like I did. But your review (contemptuous) seems curiously at odds with your rating (three stars? really?). Edit: Never..."

I just checked to see if you have reviewed the book, but found nothing. Do you have a review from one of your previous incarnations :)?


David Y'know... I must be getting senile because I can't remember whether I ever wrote a review or not. At any rate, even if I did, it's now as lost as the Wheelers' dreams of a better life...


message 7: by Kaethe (new)

Kaethe Douglas Ellen, I loved your review of Revolutionary Road, a book I knew I didn't want to read.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Ellen, there was some lively discussion of it between David (known in the the review and thread as "gothsissy" and "deleted member") and others in this thread before it evolved into gabbing about Ingmar Bergman, Paul Blart, Dave Eggers, and so forth.


Ellen David wrote: "Y'know... I must be getting senile because I can't remember whether I ever wrote a review or not. At any rate, even if I did, it's now as lost as the Wheelers' dreams of a better life..."

Ha.

MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Ellen, there was some lively discussion of it between David (known in the the review and thread as "gothsissy" and "deleted member") and others in this thread before it evolved into gabbing about I..."

I'll see if I find it. Thanks!





message 10: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Kaethe wrote: "Ellen, I loved your review of Revolutionary Road, a book I knew I didn't want to read. "

Thank you, Kaethe. I thought I'd like it [A LOT:] better than I did. The GR reviews I scanned were pretty complimentary.


Hazel This is interesting, Ellen, and I'm glad to get these points of view. Yates' portrayal of American suburbia is exotic to me, and I have thought (perhaps assumed?) that it was authentic. I couldn't understand or identify with his characters, but I thought he was describing people who hadn't begun to understand themselves; hence the absence of a moral compass. I think that was what I found tragic.

It's telling that you and David et al find this 'hokum'. Perhaps I need to take it with a pinch of salt!


message 12: by Ellen (last edited Jan 21, 2010 11:04AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Hazel wrote: "This is interesting, Ellen, and I'm glad to get these points of view. Yates' portrayal of American suburbia is exotic to me, and I have thought (perhaps assumed?) that it was authentic. I couldn't..."

Perhaps it is authentic, but I can't imagine a character as relentlessly self-conscious as Frank Wheeler even being able to move. His every action is so fraught with premeditation and concerns about how others might view him, that I pondered how he avoided paralysis. And then, of course, there's his endless selfishness. I found Yates' characters an unlikeable and uninteresting muddle in general.

Though not deliberately contrary, I also hated Bel Canto and other books, which many liked quite well.


message 13: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Elizabeth wrote: ""Throwed up!" Love that. And I'll just stay away from this one. I think I've hated enough popular fiction recently."

Yes, Dorothy Parker was reviewing Winnie-the-Pooh and got a little testy; as a child, I think I liked the book. Re current literature, I just bought Cloud Atlas and hope I'm not going to be disappointed.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Ellen wrote: "Re current literature, I just bought Cloud Atlas and hope I'm not going to be disappointed."

I just got that one, too. It's quickly approaching on my queue.


message 15: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Re current literature, I just bought Cloud Atlas and hope I'm not going to be disappointed."

I just got that one, too. It's quickly approaching on my queue."


All right. Fingers crossed. I still need to finish The Brothers Karamozov and, of course, I suppose I should do some actual work :). This is far more fun.

Just got the most votes I've received on a review. How quickly I've sunk to the level of vote ho. Shame, shame.


David How quickly I've sunk to the level of vote ho.

Once you get a taste for votes, you'll be workin' the street in no time, muttering to yourself, offering hand jobs to passersby for a quick fix (metaphorically speaking).

Trust me. I know. It's destroyed my life.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Yup. I was incredibly ignorant of the whole voting mechanism for quite sometime. Then spent even more time oblivious to caring one way or another about it. Never voted, never desired votes. Then I found myself at #4 one week and caught the bug. I still don't put enough effort into it given the amount of time I spend putzing around on this website. But still, my brain lights up when I see votes for me. That's the hilariously embarrassing fact of the matter.


message 18: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen David wrote: "How quickly I've sunk to the level of vote ho.

Once you get a taste for votes, you'll be workin' the street in no time, muttering to yourself, offering hand jobs to passersby for a quick fix (m..."


I'm sitting here laughing out loud. I always do this shit. When I played tennis, I made it into work. This is sick.

I'm going to be strong, though, and stay off those streets.


message 19: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Yup. I was incredibly ignorant of the whole voting mechanism for quite sometime. Then spent even more time oblivious to caring one way or another about it. Never voted, never desired votes. The..."

Yeppers. It's addictive as hell.

However, as addictions go, it's a lot healthier than collecting friends on the subliterate political site where I posted for two years.

At least here, the comments are intelligent - often hilarious - and I'm reading all the time.


message 20: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken If you like prep school lit., try Yates' early novel A Good School.


message 21: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Newengland wrote: "If you like prep school lit., try Yates' early novel A Good School."

I do like novels with academic settings, but I may need to wait a bit, NE. For starters, I was a bit disenchanted with RR, and I think Yates would have to do something pretty spectacular to equal Tobias Wolf's Old School, which I finished recently and still need to review. Wolf's book had some flaws, I think, but was often incredibly good.


message 22: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 21, 2010 01:17PM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio ::hand on hip, wagging free index finger::

You've still got Infinite Jest left on your plate, young lady...


message 23: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "::hand on hip, wagging free index finger::

You've still got Infinite Jest left on your plate, young lady..."


Yes. You're right, but yesterday I bought Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, so IJ might need to wait a tad longer :). ...I really like his essays.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Excellent. Re: Infinite Jest: Just push past the parts that seem boring. Everything starts to cohere so beautifully as it goes along. Obviously there's a severe lack of a linear time-line but the sort of fractal-logic behind it is also revealed to be much more than a gag or cheap trickery. Obviously I'm a big fan. I think you'd really love the book if you pushed yourself passed the 1/10th mark.


message 25: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "Excellent. Re: Infinite Jest: Just push past the parts that seem boring. Everything starts to cohere so beautifully as it goes along. Obviously there's a severe lack of a linear time-line but t..."

I think I was past the 1/10 part, but I started reading it immediately after the seriously crappy fall 2009 semester. I was not in a mellow mood... Now, having liked his essays, I think I'll enjoy it, but I'm starting over when I do read it.

Still want a Kindle, though. What is it with DFW's books? The regular font is small, and the footnote font is microscopic.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I was in the perfect (though not exactly mellow either) mood for the book when I read it. I'd just finished my first year of college and was living at school during the summer and spending my time repairing and maintaining the buildings and grounds during the day and reading in solitude at night. I was also spending a lot of time thinking about addiction, America and entertainment.

Still want a Kindle, though. What is it with DFW's books? The regular font is small, and the footnote font is microscopic.

Luckily I'm near-sighted.


message 27: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Newengland wrote: "If you like prep school lit., try Yates' early novel A Good School."

Changed my mind, and put it on my to-read shelf. Perhaps I'll like this book by Yates.


message 28: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken There's a bit of nasty boys-will-be-animals stuff at the get-go, but then a lot of parallel stuff with the adults comes in as well. I liked it, but I'm partial to the genre (even though I'm a product of the public schools).


message 29: by Tyler (new)

Tyler I've wondered from many reviews how much the demographics of the potential readership drive the plot and characterizations for this book. Thanks for the detailed analysis, but take it easy and try to unwind!


message 30: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Tyler wrote: "I've wondered from many reviews how much the demographics of the potential readership drive the plot and characterizations for this book. Thanks for the detailed analysis, but take it easy and try..."

Thanks! This is my unwound self. I have two speeds: asleep and riled up.



message 31: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho.


message 32: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Cynthia wrote: "Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho."


Thank you - that particular bit really stood out because the writing prior was rather lean, and it was as though Yates thought, "Whoops - I guess it's time to insert some artful description!"



message 33: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho."

Thank you - that particular bit really stood out because the writing prior was ..."


"Oh yes, time to sensualize my prose. Sex it up, baby!"
And that bit about unforgivably fat ankles? Reminds me of the crap Hilary Clinton had to take during her presidential bid. ARGH!


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio What a bizarre thing to even make note of. Ankle fat?? Seriously???


message 35: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Cynthia wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho."

Thank you - that particular bit really stood out because the writing ..."


Yeppers, Cynthia and MFSO, a comment about fat ankles, aka "cankles." Must have been rough for Frank to deal with all these inferior women.




Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Poor, poor Frankie-pooh.


message 37: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho."

Thank you - that particular bit really stood out ..."

Cankles? Didn't they refer to them as "Tankles" when it came to Hilary's?



message 38: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Cynthia wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho."

Thank you - that particular bit really ..."


I had to look this one up. Depressingly, I posted on a political site for over two year (this is SO much better), and the word consistently applied to Hillary was "cankles." However, I looked at the urban dictionary, and the distinction is pretty subtle. Cankles occur when the ankles are so large there is no differentiation between the calves and ankles. Tankles are excessively large ankles, resembling a tank.

So it's a question of logic: wouldn't tankles result in cankles?

And why the hell aren't there more words that insult men? I'm creating an alternate dicktionary.



message 39: by Cynthia (new)

Cynthia Paschen Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Ellen wrote: "Cynthia wrote: "Oh Christ. "The earth lie naked and tender..." Barf.

Great Review!! And you are not a vote ho."

Thank you - that pa..."


Those are very subtle distinctions. And I'll help you write that dicktionary. We are going to need a large special section relating to hair.
Hair coming out of ears: Earpubes?
And on and on, with words for backhair, nosehair, hair to thin to be wearing in a damn ponytail, hair that looks like it was cut by your mom, etc.


message 40: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Jan 24, 2010 01:25PM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Ellen wrote: "And why the hell aren't there more words that insult men?"

I think there's quite a bit. Terms to insult penis size alone would take up a lot of space. Balding. Excessive skinniness. Excessive fatness. Weakness. Etc. We have our own self-image problems. At least these days.


message 41: by Paul (last edited Jan 30, 2010 08:16AM) (new)

Paul Bryant Another Richard writes similar angst-amongst-the-fairly-well-off stuff, Richard Ford. I had the same response to his stuff as you did to Revolutionary Road.


message 42: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Paul wrote: "Another Richard writes similar angst-amongst-the-fairly-well-off stuff, Richard Ford. I had the same response to his stuff as you did to Revolutionary Road."

Thanks for the warning! I'll have to look him up.


message 43: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell THANK GOD. So many people I know loooove this book and author I felt like a jerk for not being able to read it.


message 44: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Paul wrote: "Another Richard writes similar angst-amongst-the-fairly-well-off stuff, Richard Ford. I had the same response to his stuff as you did to Revolutionary Road."

Ahahaha Independence Day SUCKED.




message 45: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Moira wrote: "THANK GOD. So many people I know loooove this book and author I felt like a jerk for not being able to read it."

This book wasn't hard to trash at all!

When I slam a real classic or touted author - such as my initial reactions to A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and DFW in general, I felt like I'd killed the Easter bunny. Peversely, I now like DFW quite a lot, and will re-start IJ when I can catch my breath (new semester - aarggh).



message 46: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken Paul -- Regarding Richards, Yates is major league compared to Ford. But I get your larger point. There's this mediocre posse of "manly-man" writers who just don't measure up to the hype, Richarded or not: Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, Richard Ford, etc. (I'd need time to think of more... I know they're out there).




message 47: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Newengland wrote: "Paul -- Regarding Richards, Yates is major league compared to Ford. But I get your larger point. There's this mediocre posse of "manly-man" writers who just don't measure up to the hype, Richarde..."

Did you like Revolutionary Road, NE?

BTW, my semester just started last week (eat your heart out :).


message 48: by Ken (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ken It's been too long to recall my "scale of 10" rating. Is this the one where everyone's always drinking in a 50's living room? I think I found it "OK" but hardly revolutionary.


message 49: by Ellen (new) - rated it 1 star

Ellen Newengland wrote: "It's been too long to recall my "scale of 10" rating. Is this the one where everyone's always drinking in a 50's living room? I think I found it "OK" but hardly revolutionary. "

Yes, it's booze, boredom, and angst. It would have stayed in my "eh" category if the book hadn't been such a pretentious mess.


message 50: by Paul (new)

Paul Bryant With some of these universally praised books, to cop a phrase which Frankie Goes To Hollywood stole from Ronald Reagan, sometimes you have to wonder if you're on the right planet. Independence Day made me feel like I was trapped in the brain of the world's smuggest man and the Revolutionary Road movie should have been strangled at birth. Still, art, like life, is a minefield. We pick out way across very carefully and occasionally get the odd toe blown off.


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