Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. CainChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Postman Always Rings Twice
Author: James M. Cain
Year: 1934

When I think about The Postman Always Rings Twice, one word comes to mind: bleak.

That’s for good reason, and it’s therefore somewhat remarkable that I enjoy the novel as much as I do.

I’m not really sure why that is. “Bleak” and I don’t get along all that well, at least not when it comes to literature. I’m much more forgiving of it in passive media, such as film and music. I can even (usually) handle it in video games, where it’s often something of a selling point.

In novels, though, it’s a bit different. Novels engage the mind in a completely unique way. The work of translation, of visualization, of narrative identification, all takes place within the mind. Novels tap directly into your center of empathy. Your brain decodes them in a way that only your brain can, and, if the writing is effective, it can make you, as a reader, feel things more potently than even real life can.

That’s why “bleak” is difficult to process as a reader. It’s why I skip many books. However well they’re written, however impressive or clever their narratives, however memorable a bleak novel might be…is it really worth putting your mind through that? Transporting it to and forcing it to endure a small universe of relentless, tormenting darkness? I’m not even speaking about horror; horror can operate at a remove, wherein there’s a certain thrill to the gore and the violence. No…I’m speaking expressly about bleakness. Pure, potent bleakness that surrounds, envelops, weighs upon the reader.

Horror can be fun. Bleakness doesn’t allow even that much.

I remember Last Exit to Brooklyn feeling very bleak. In fact, it took me two attempts to even finish it. I remember Push being so bleak I couldn’t finish it. The same applies to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; however much I enjoy Murakami, I made it a bit more than halfway through that book and simply couldn’t keep reading. It filled me with such despair that I couldn’t operate.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a different kind of bleak than those novels, but I wouldn’t say that it’s any less bleak.

It’s relentless. It’s tragic. Neither of its two main characters (and co-conspirators) have any redeeming characteristics…unless you count good looks, which, the novel makes clear, you emphatically should not.

It’s the story of Frank Chambers, a conman who identifies an easy mark in a Greek restaurateur who was dumb enough to reach out to what seemed like a man in need. Frank picks up on a familiar capacity for selfishness and mischief on the part of the Greek’s glamorous wife Cora, and before long they scheme to murder the man for his insurance money.

They carry out their plan.

It fails, and they have every opportunity to reconsider their choice.

Needless to say, they do not. They carry out a second plan, and it succeeds. Without the Greek left to betray, they soon turn on each other.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is structured something like a tragic romance. Frank and Cora are forbidden from love, and so they topple the obstacles, one by one, that stand between them. The only problem is that they’re awful human beings, rotten to the bone, and, ultimately, they don’t like each other any more than they like anyone else. Which is part of what makes the novel so bleak; there’s no hope for a happy ending, because neither of the main characters wants a happy ending. They delight in being irredeemable. That’s who they are. And though they’d never admit or recognize that fact, that’s the only way they’re comfortable.

The one character in the novel who seems to at least have the capacity for good is their victim, several times over. Frank and Cora aren’t forces of evil; they’re forces of bleakness.

I first experienced the story in the largely faithful (the only time The Postman Always Rings Twice and faithfulness can go together) 1946 film version, starring John Garfield and Lana Turner. I remember being impressed with how bleak and daringly unromantic it was, but it’s got nothing on the source material.

As an author, James M. Cain wasn’t subject to the same necessary censorship that Tay Garnett was as a director. And I will say right now that Garnett got away with much more than you might have expected in mid-40s Hollywood. But Cain can go further, and he does. And it’s not just that he can present more of the sex and violence…it’s the way in which he presents them. The way in which it isn’t glorified at all. The way in which it’s described so bluntly that it’s impossible to be seduced by it.

Frank and Cora have a lot of sex. They use almost every free moment to have sex. We’re privy to a lot of it…and yet, it’s not a turn on. It’s abusive. It’s a coupling free of love, romance, or even respect. It’s often bloody. It’s always cruel. Each time these two characters come together, we’re reminded of how important it should be to keep them apart. They are awful to each other, and they relish their awfulness.

It’s not two characters who are in mutual agreement about rough sex. It’s two characters who want to hurt each other, and who are only happy when they push each other too far, beyond their realm of comfort, beyond even the basic decency of treatment they should be able to expect as human beings.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sad story of inhuman, remorseless ugliness. It’s a tale that’s not only without a hero; it’s a tale that doesn’t deserve one.

And yet…I can read it. It’s bleak, but it’s a bleak I can go along with. Cain is effective at defining these characters as deeply monstrous, but he also–perhaps even by focusing in so tightly on that monstrousness–somehow reminds us there is good in the world.

Just not here.

The Postman Always Rings Twice thrusts us into a vacuum of hopelessness, but it defines it so well that we know that, beyond the boundaries, something good is happening. Somewhere.

Frank and Cora entangle one another in their own self-perpetuating miseries, and that’s where the entirety of the novel takes place.

Any other household in the world is bound to be better than this. And that, in its own bleak way, is the novel’s ultimate reassurance.

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. SalingerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Catcher in the Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Year: 1951

The Catcher in the Rye is a deceptively complex novel. It’s far less a story than it is a collection of related vignettes that weave a longform character sketch of Holden Caulfield, literature’s most prominent troubled youth. It’s a picaresque that doesn’t cover much geographical space, but charts–with disarming effectiveness–the worried expanse of the adolescent mind.

It’s one of my favorites. I’ve read it more times than I can count. Often around the holidays. When we’re supposed to be happy.

It works pretty well around then.

It’s a great novel, and also one against which there’s been some critical backlash. We read it at some point, sure, and thought it was brilliant and wise and profound, but we’ve grown up since then…and Holden, pointedly, has not. That’s not only because he’s a character in an unchanging novel; it’s because he’s unchanging my design. He’s stunted in his development, willingly and stubbornly so.

When many of us first read it–it’s commonly assigned in high school, after all–we were like that. We knew better than so many others. We felt things nobody else felt. We were the ones pushing back against the profane soullessness of the adult world, and we were right to do so…because we could change things if only we wouldn’t compromise, if only we’d hold on to what we had, if only we believed we could do so much…

And then we graduated.

We went to college.

We got jobs. We got married.

We had children, we bought homes. We joined rotary clubs.

The Catcher in the Rye was just a novel. Maybe we had a copy on our shelves. More likely, we did not. We’d look back, if we ever looked back, and see Holden as a silly, frustrating child. Perhaps we’d be embarrassed that we ever identified with him.

After all…he needed to grow up.

In fact, I’ve had friends of mine–readers I respect–share more or less precisely that opinion with me, without the biographical details. Holden Caulfield himself doesn’t represent to them the follies of youth…their identification with Holden Caulfield was itself the folly.

And I think that’s missing the point.

It’s easy to fall into the trap–especially when young, impressionable, lonesome, adrift–of glorifying Holden’s outlook, and finding little in the book beyond loose identification with its protagonist. But as we grow up–as we learn to read literature better, and more completely–we should find a lot more. Holden’s flaws should become more apparent. And what we once celebrated as youthful rebellion should reveal itself to be a kind of steadfast blockheadedness coupled with at least some degree of mental illness.

But there is wisdom in Holden Caulfield. A kind of wisdom, anyway. A willingness to yearn for a world he’s never actually known, a desire to see innocence preserved, a warped sort of respectfulness that he often feels even when he fails to demonstrate it…

…and that’s the moral. The fact that this flawed, embarrassing, self-sabotaging young man still has something to say. Still has something to offer. Still represents so much of the good that is–or could be–in the world. Holden Caulfield is a deeply flawed human being…but he’s still human. And I think that’s what makes the book difficult for so many readers who’ve “grown up”; they see more of the world in black and white. Their experiences have taught them to file people away more easily. They’re less willing to engage with flawed individuals than they were as children, as teenagers, as young adults.

Than they were before they got hurt for doing so.

And so Holden Caulfield, to them, is the old friend they’re glad they lost touch with. The one who never changed. The one who is still haunting the same places, still complaining about the same things, still alone. Still struggling with the same problems. Still where he’ll always be.

The Catcher in the Rye reminds us, with its own refusal to age, that at one point we did hang around with Holden. We loved him. We were forgiving of him in a way we are not today. We are the ones who have changed, and that may or may not be for the better.

We might be further ahead. We might have left the protagonist of some novel we used to love behind. But at what cost? Do we rob ourselves of the fond memories we once shared with him? Do we dismiss the next Holden Caulfield we meet?

Didn’t he have some kind of point? Didn’t he just want the world to be a little…better?

The Catcher in the Rye is designed to help close readers question themselves, and their outlooks. It never wanted to hold up Holden Caulfield as some exemplary human being worthy of specific idolization. It wanted to craft a believably flawed person and catch him at a painfully transitional time in his life. It wanted to capture in words everything struggling young people could only dream of being able to articulate. It wanted to speak for those who may not have been convinced they’d ever find their voice.

And it succeeded. The Catcher in the Rye was, and continues to be, a massively successful book. It’s still changing lives. It’s still helping young readers to understand what it means to be alive in a world that probably isn’t what they wished it would be. It’s still helping people to find their place.

It’s just a shame that many readers eventually feel that they’ve outgrown it, and are reluctant to engage with it differently as adults.

Trying to read it again in your thirties, your forties, your fifties, and being ashamed of what once resonated with your distant, youthful self…well, that means you’re reading it wrong.

You should be looking instead for the different lesson it would like to teach you as an adult. You should be learning about what we lose as we grow up, and the danger of leaving the wrong things behind.

Lord Jim, Joseph ConradChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Lord Jim
Author: Joseph Conrad
Year: 1900

Do your moments of weakness define you, or your moments of strength? You have both. We all do. You don’t exist in a constant state of either. You vacillate between them. You’re one person in this situation, and somebody else in another. Context matters. Details matter. Decisions made in the moment may not reflect who you are so much as they reflect the desperation you felt, the immediacy of action, the necessity of leaping before you look.

Lord Jim is one of my personal favorite novels, and I say that as someone who isn’t especially a fan of Joseph Conrad. His writing doesn’t resonate with me. It doesn’t move me. I read it, I understand it, and I move along. Other authors stick in my craw, shape the way I see the world, stow away in my subconscious to be remembered and considered for years down the line.

On the whole, Conrad doesn’t do that for me. Even his celebrated Heart of Darkness, which was indeed good, just didn’t stick. Lord Jim, however, is the welcome exception. It shares a narrator with Heart of Darkness, but that’s about all it shares. It tells a completely different, much better, much more effective story. To me, at least, the experience of reading it held infinitely more meaning.

The novel focuses on disgraced sailor Jim, who, one night aboard a steamer, notices that the ship is about to sink. Understanding that it’s too late to prevent the tragedy, and aware that there is not enough rescue equipment to save all of the passengers–and that alerting them would only cause chaos without hope of survival–Jim abandons the ship.

It doesn’t sink.

It’s a simple act of cowardice, a bad decision made in a moment of panic, but it comes to define the rest of his life. His scared, selfish moment haunts him. As many times as he tries to outrun the news of his unforgivable cowardly act, it always catches up to him. He’s always reminded of what he’s done.

And he packs up, and moves along. Jim is forever unable to escape the ghost of his own shame. He holds onto it. Internalizes it. Lets it become part of what defines him.

He is always the coward, the fool, the deserter. It was a poor decision made by a young man who didn’t know much better, and it colors the way he’s perceived–and the way he perceives himself–for the rest of his life.

I was assigned this book in college. Before the course started, I looked at the reading list. Seeing Lord Jim there meant nothing to me, aside from the fact that I already knew I wasn’t partial to Conrad.

For some reason, I started reading it early. Maybe I thought I’d give myself a little longer to plod through an author I didn’t quite like. Maybe I was just bored. I really don’t remember. But I do know that I intended to read a bit of the book ahead of time, and I ended up finishing it before the class even started.

It was a book that spoke to me the way few others can, and it did so immediately. To this day when I find a used book store I look for a copy of Lord Jim, just to check it out its cover art…and sometimes to buy. I don’t know why, but I accumulate copies. It comforts me to do so. It reassures me. Perhaps I just feel like I’m doing good by poor ol’ Jim, who desperately needs somebody to believe in him. Someone to root for him. Someone to let him know, in whatever way he needs to know, that he is not his mistakes.

The novel is Jim’s continuous attempt at atonement. His error causes him to push himself. To become a better person. To not only flee his past, but to try to live a better life in the future. It’s a novel of regular, constant achievement…and none of it helps, because Jim can’t stop holding himself accountable for a transgression long passed.

It’s a novel of psychological torment, but it doesn’t read like one. It reads more like a novel about a good man who can’t bear to show himself forgiveness.

It’s a journey of the most difficult kind, because his main obstacle is himself. As we all know…there’s no getting around that one.

And so Jim grows up. He helps people. He gives of himself to others. He shows the world a kind of grace that he will not grant himself. He becomes better, without managing to feel better.

It’s a kind of reverse Christmas Carol. Rather than learning about what an awful person he is, Jim gradually comes to understand that he’s not the monster he thought he was. As with Scrooge, however, he fights against the revelation. He clings to the image he already holds of himself. He pushes back against the reality, and refuses to accept it.

That’s interesting to me. Literature is filled to bursting with characters who become better people over the course of a novel, or story, or poem. But I don’t know of many who refuse to believe that they’ve become better people.

Jim didn’t commit a murder. He wasn’t a thief. He wasn’t a liar, he didn’t cheat anybody, and literally nobody came to any harm as a result of his mistake.

But he lets it define him more than he lets any of his subsequent acts define him. His is a life of constant penance for a mistake that, quite frankly, many others would have made.

It wasn’t many others, though.

It was him.

And he can’t forgive that.

I still love Lord Jim. I’ve considered covering it for Fiction into Film because I have so much to say about the book, but I haven’t seen either of the movies adapted from it.

Truth be told, though, I’m not sure I want to see them. They might be great. (Peter O’Toole plays Jim in the second one, and I can imagine him being quite good.) But Lord Jim is one of those books that hit me deeply, in a way that I’d rather not dilute with alternate interpretations.

I want to hold onto it. Internalize it. Let it become part of what defines me.

That’s only fair. It sure helped me to let go of many of my own mistakes that I’ve held onto, internalized, and let define me.

You should read Lord Jim.

Blindness, José SaramagoChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Blindness
Author: José Saramago
Year: 1995

Few things frighten me more than the collapse of the society we take for granted, and few books have dug as effectively into this fear as José Saramago’s Blindness. What really makes it work, though, is that it toys with the idea that it’s not just society we take for granted…it’s the very way we perceive it.

Well…it sort of does that.

It does to me, at least, and this is one of probably few examples in which I think my own limited experience as a reader actually ended up being a benefit.

See, when I read Blindness, I was impressed. The thing that hooked me was its concept, which I thought–and still think–was great: a mysterious epidemic of sightlessness spreads rapidly from person to person. There is no explanation for what’s happening. There is no solution. One morning, people can see. The next, they can’t. Only one woman manages to retain her vision…for reasons nobody, at any point, will know.

An author can do a lot with that setup, and Saramago, indeed, does.

Blindness, naturally, is a story in large part about disorientation. Or, more specifically, about the immediate loss of orientation. And he authors his book in such a way that the reader feels something similar. We are used, after all, to certain conventions of fiction that Saramago robs from us: character names, dialogue tags, compact sentences, and assistive paragraph breaks.

As a result…well…we’re lost, too. As the epidemic hits these characters–which happens at the precise start of the novel–we are thrust right along with them into a world we don’t understand. For them, it’s required that they find a new way to live. For us, it’s required that we find a new way to read.

Dialogue is part of the narration. It’s never immediately clear who is speaking, or even that anyone is speaking. It’s embedded in the middle of a long paragraph, as opposed to set off on its own, with helpful punctuation, as it usually is. And the lack of character names makes it difficult for us to remember who is who…as though every character’s motives must be judged based solely on what they’re saying right now, because it’s difficult to build up a complete, identifiable history of behavior for them.

Just as it must be for these characters, voices are only voices. We took structure for granted. When it’s removed…we don’t know how to read.

The same goes for his seeming reluctance to end sentences. They instead stumble on and on, over and across various ideas that may sit next to each other on the page but aren’t necessarily related. He doles out full stops sparingly, leaving us to grasp at what we can while we go, hoping to eventually come to some kind of termination point that might help us to assess whatever it is we’ve just bumped into. We are blind characters groping along a wall full of unfamiliar–and perhaps unknowable–obstacles and decor.

It’s an intellectually dizzying effect, and it’s a great one. It’s a masterful and efficient way of pulling the reader into the reality of the tale without resorting to cheap visual trickery (such as, say, printing certain text in a much lighter ink) or grabbing at visceral reactions (such as by describing, in detail, any number of the myriad tragically gory outcomes of a world suddenly plunged into sightlessness).

No, instead Saramago is artful. Elegant, even. His tragedy unfolds with authorial grace and a remarkable understanding of his medium.

Sort of.

See, here’s something I didn’t know, and it was only pointed out to me afterward, as I raved about it: these are common aspects of Saramago’s writing.

The lack of character names, the indistinct formatting, the voices without attribution…that’s not Blindness. That’s apparently Saramago.

And that, in itself, was an interesting discovery.

Had I read Saramago for years, I would not have felt these things in Blindness. I came instead from another author, one who, at least comparatively, adhered to recognizable, tacitly agreed upon fictional structure. The first page of Blindness, then, drained from me the comfort of orientation, which, of course, was something I could not expect.

His longtime readers, though, had experience with it. This was just how he wrote, and they grew to love him, to understand him, to know how to follow him. They knew how to read him.

And, frankly?

I feel a little bit bad for them.

Saramago may have played the same tricks regularly, but they suit Blindness perfectly. It’s the right story for them…and, in return, they are the right way to tell this story.

I don’t mean to suggest, nor could I possibly suggest, that they didn’t work as well with Saramago’s other novels. But I will say that as someone who’s only read Blindness, it is impossible for me to imagine using them for any other reason. They feel as though they were conjured from the aether expressly for this purpose…whereas the truth is that they evolved over time, and their purpose came instead to find them. It’s the nearest thing to a clear intelligent design / natural selection dichotomy as I’ve ever known in literature.

It’s interesting how that works. How artists do something for so long, and then, at once, it clicks in a way it never had before. They’re not even necessarily doing something different. They’re just doing what they love, and, suddenly, things matter.

Think of Wes Anderson going from Bottle Rocket to Rushmore. Think of the distance between Help! and Rubber Soul.

The gifts of the artist are the same, but a new context is found. One in which everything takes on a profound new significance. One in which quirks and habits and hobbies become defining characteristics. One in which words become a voice.

I got to experience something with Blindness that his fans did not.

Often a greater understanding of an artist can enhance our appreciation for his or her works. With Blindness, though, ignorance really was bliss.

Whenever Saramago pulls those tricks on you for the first time, you’ll be surprised. But you’ll only be surprised for the first time.

I’m glad that my first time was the right time.

Catch-22, Joseph HellerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Catch-22
Author: Joseph Heller
Year: 1961

There are novels that are important, novels you enjoy, novels that challenge your perceptions. And then there are novels that change who you are.

Catch-22 is that novel for me.

I don’t know what I expected from it. I’m not sure that I expected anything. But I was one person before I read it. I was another person afterward.

It is, to be as direct as possible, the reason I am a writer. It showed me, for the first time, the remarkable, bottomless possibilities of the English language. It made me think in a way that no piece of entertainment ever had before. It made me question things I never thought to question. It made me laugh at atrocities, and be moved and affected deeply by frivolities. It was unquestionably the most accomplished piece of fiction I had ever read at that point in my life. Just as unquestionably, I’ve read better novels since. And yet none of them have affected me the way Catch-22 did.

In the simplest possible description, Catch-22 is a novel about a United States bomber squadron stationed on the small island of Pianosa during World War II. The protagonist, Yossarian, seems to be something of a career malcontent. He pushes back against authority, against absurdity, against the rigid advance of fate itself. And yet, he’s not heroic.

Yossarian is a deeply flawed individual. He doesn’t rebel because it’s the right thing to do; he rebels because he’s terrified that he will not make it home alive. His rebellion takes shape and gains momentum because it taps into the one thing every one of his fellow servicemen feels along with him, to varying degrees: fear.

And it’s not unfounded. Colonel Cathcart, the squadorn’s commanding officer, keeps raising the number of missions his men have to fly before they will be sent home. Every time Yossarian gets close, the goal line gets pushed further out. Some of the other men try to assure him that he’s worrying over nothing…that the number of required missions can’t increase forever…that, at some point, this will all end.

One by one, they are shot down in combat.

Yossarian’s rebellion is one of desperate sanity. It’s born of seeing reality, of witnessing history, of watching the official lie unravel…revealing that there is no exit.

It’s a funny book, and a sad one. It’s clever. It flits back and forth through time with only a handful of hints to allow readers to orient themselves. And–most surprising and devastating to me at the time–the characters that you love, that you rely on, that mean something to you, often don’t come back.

Nobody is safe in the world of Catch-22. Every connection you make, like every connection Yossarian makes, is the first step toward disappointment, toward grief, toward, sometimes, betrayal. It’s the horror of war that largely takes place between missions, in the downtime. When you’re supposed to be safe. When you realize that the real enemy is on your side.

When I finished reading it, I immediately started the novel over from the beginning. I’ve never done that again. Catch-22 had more to say than a single reading could ever express. I knew that. I started back at page one. I read it all the way through once more. Since then, I must have read it twenty more times.

It inspired me to become a writer. It inspired me to communicate. It convinced me that communication wasn’t just important…sometimes it is the only defense we have. Heller actually served in the air force during World War II. Catch-22 is fiction, but I think it’s safe to assume that it’s really fictionalized. This was his method of processing his experience. It was a crucial, urgent, instant classic of American literature. And it remains so today, for very good reason.

There’s only a small number of books that I’ll ever read that will affect me nearly as much as Catch-22 did. It’s sad to know that I may have read them all already. It’s sadder to know that I may not ever get the chance to read most of them.

Catch-22 is the closest thing that I have to evidence of fate. I saw it one day in my high school library. I don’t know why I bothered to pick it up. I knew the concept of a “catch-22” (a concept which takes its name from the novel, rather than the other way around), and maybe I just thought I’d want to read about it. I flipped through some pages. I read the copy on the inside flaps. And I did something I’d never done before: checked a book out of the library.

I found that copy of Catch-22 by chance. I could have read anything else. Likelier still, I might not have read anything at all. But somewhere, in those pages, was the spark that would help me become the person I was supposed to be. I don’t know why I was in the library that day. What I was looking for. What I hoped to learn. But Catch-22 answered the questions I never realized I had.

Years later I returned to that high school as a substitute teacher. I was a literature major in college at the time. I was a writer.

I told one of my classes that story. About finding the novel in the library. About what an important moment that was, and how I found direction in a book I didn’t even know existed. It was an English class. It was part of a larger discussion I really enjoyed. I was with a room full of actual readers, against all odds. Young students who had things to say about books, and who wanted to share their opinions. That was heartening.

At the end of the school year, I was teaching another class. In fact, I was leaving for the day. A young girl called my name, and I recognized her. I’d taught her a few times.

She handed me that copy of Catch-22. The very one that changed me, so many years ago at this point. The same copy I brought home and pored over when I was younger. The same one that put me on a whole other track in my life.

She’d torn out the anti-theft sticker and smuggled it out to me. It was a sweet gesture. I wanted to give it back to the library. To make sure it was there for another student, in the future, to have the same experience I had.

…but for another student, it would probably be another book. One specific to them…not to me.

And so I never did get around to returning it.

I kept it. And on my shelf, right now, sits the most important copy of any book in my life. The one that reflected my soul back to me.

The one that let me know, for the first time, who I was.

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