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The Silence by Don DeLillo

Illusory though it is, there’s an endorphin-rush moment when you begin a novel that feels as though it was written just for you. The story’s arc is almost irrelevant. What blows your hair back are the observations in sentences that seem perfectly formed. It’s as if your limbic system has been waiting for this moment. And from this instant, you know that you will need to read everything ever written by this author, this new shadow of you. For me, one such author is Don DeLillo.
I don’t recall how it was in my twenties I ended up reading DeLillo’s “Libra,” a novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. I wasn’t particularly interested in traveling into an imagined rendering of Oswald’s mind. By novel’s end, however, I felt as though I learned more about him than any nonfiction book could reveal. But more than anything, it was DeLillo’s writing that had me up, pacing and reading. There was a rhythm to the words. To this day, I will reread a chapter of DeLillo, much in the same way we listen to our favorite musicians over and over.
DeLillo’s awards and accolades are many, his influence on a generation of writers legion, notably Jonathan Franzen and the late, great David Foster Wallace. His modernist style made him a talisman to those pondering modern life. While DeLillo may not be a widely read author, his writing reminds me of what someone said of The Velvet Underground: not many listened to their music, but those who did started a band. Reading DeLillo made one want to write. And, after 50 years as a published author, he’s still at it.
His latest novel, “The Silence,” could actually be considered a novella. It’s only 117 pages, double-spaced. (The fact that such a svelte book was released in a fickle publishing industry speaks to DeLillo’s reputation.) It takes place on Super Bowl night, the year 2022. A couple, Tessa and Jim, are flying back to New Jersey from Paris. As they approach stateside, the commercial plane loses its lift and plummets. Whereas Jim had been staring at the screen that tracks the plane’s location, airspeed, and estimated time of arrival, he now visualizes the soon-to-be news footage reporting their fiery demise.
At the same moment, another couple, Max and Diane, are ready to watch the game in their Manhattan apartment and are also waiting for Tessa and Jim to join them. Already there is Martin, a former university physics student of Diane’s. Then all electric currents and signals disappear. When it dawns on them that this outage is widespread and not likely to end soon, Max (who appears to have a slight gambling problem) loses it a little. He stops just staring at the blank screen and starts to announce a made-up football game, replete with commercials.
Martin, already a man with “a nowhere stare,” begins spouting thoughts that are sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes absurd. For him, that blank screen means so much more than a power outage. “What is it hiding from us?” Not knowing what else to do, Diane observes and listens to these two, a low-grade panic beginning to well insider her. “The pauses were turning into silences and beginning to feel like the wrong kind of normal.”
Tessa and Jim survive the crash and eventually find their way to Max and Diane’s apartment. (On the shuttle ride from the crash site to a medical clinic, the van comes across a woman jogging amidst this grid shutdown. An odd site, the van’s driver slows to the jogger’s pace, the shuttle riders watching her as she blithely jogs.)
DeLillo is a master of dialogue. In this novel, however, the characters don’t really converse with each other. More than once, someone will exclaim that they are just going to say what comes to mind, for—given the current situation—no one is going to remember it anyway.
During the Cold War, DeLillo’s work explored how life plays out under the threat of mutually assured destruction. There was a dread mixed with weapon-worship, as evidenced in his noting that we named warheads and rockets from Greek and Roman mythology. On this night, in the year 2022, there’s no electrical power to launch such force. The conversation is no longer about nuclear arms; it’s now “the language of living weaponry. Germs, genes, spores.” To Martin “the war rolls on and the terms accumulate.” In fact, he seems to think that this blackout is just the beginning of World War III.
If you have yet to read DeLillo, I would recommend beginning with earlier works, such as “White Noise” or “Libra.” The former devilishly satirizes university culture in an era of unyielding media saturation; the latter shows us how a disillusioned loner can make history. (I am not saying don’t read his latest novel, for it was certainly prescient, being that it was written before our own upheaval that greeted us soon after last year’s Super Bowl. I am saying that his earlier works are that of a virtuoso.)
Another theme DeLillo mines is the formidable nature of crowds. In the “Silence,” our characters try to avoid what they know is taking place on the streets. (Max ventures out briefly to take in the growing tension, “a thousand faces every minute,” “curses rising into the air.”) This power is on full display in “Mao II” (another recommendation), the book beginning with a mass wedding ceremony officiated by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
In “Underworld,” DeLillo’s brilliant magnum opus (and my favorite), we begin with “an assembling crowd,” making their way to game three of the 1951 National League pennant, these New Yorkers bringing “with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day.” Outside the Polo Grounds, a black kid, with “a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful,” gathers with other kids—black and white—who can’t afford a ticket. They briefly strategize the best way to jump the turnstiles.
Inside, during the game, Jackie Gleason holds comedic court. An F.B.I. agent whispers to J. Edgar Hoover that the Soviets detonated their first hydrogen bomb test. This is the game where Bobby Thomson hits the series-winning home run with “the shot heard around the world.” The kid who jumped the stiles catches the ball. “This is the people’s history and it has flesh and breath.” Such events are life-defining. Yet they are, as all moments are, fleeting, “fading indelibly into the past.” It’s an electrified blend of fact and fiction that reveals truth, the very reason we read serious fiction. This is why we read Don DeLillo.

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The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann

East Berlin, early November 1989. Protestors seeking political reforms thrum the city. You can feel it: The old communist order is falling apart. And so is Bernd Zeiger, Stasi officer.

While you and I know that the Berlin Wall is set to topple, the characters in Jennifer Hofmann’s excellent debut novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures do not. And, really, the protests that contribute to the wall’s cracking are just sporadic backdrops throughout the novel. What Hofmann gives us is a small cast of characters trying to lurch their way through daily life in a regime that has already taken so much from them.

Zeiger, nearing the end of his career as an officer in East Germany’s brutal secret police organization, is—like the wall—on the verge of total collapse. He has “developed a death wish, passive but pronounced.” The impetus for his breakdown: Lara, a waitress at the café he frequents, has disappeared. Apparently, Zeiger is so starved for human connection that an accidental near fall at the café, resulting in Lara catching herself by placing her hand on his shoulder, has reduced him to a vessel of total need. His life is a double helix of loss of meaning and a yearning for the one thing that might restore some balance: Lara. Driving Berlin, he sees her everywhere. “Lara, the blinding cherry lights ahead. Lara, the speckle of dried dirt on his windshield. Lara in the stratosphere. Lara in the ether.”

If Zeiger had one life-defining event, it was penning a reference work entitled “Standardization of Demoralization Procedures” (SDP Manual). As a young Stasi officer, he was unsettled by the Soviet method of torturing subjects into confessions (real or not). So he codified a different kind of torture, where recipients were at the end of a barrage of mental maneuverings (ridiculous, yet effective) that led to mental chaos. If they confessed, great. If not, it didn’t really matter. A different charge awaited.

An example of its comic absurdity: Subchapter 1.1, “Demoralization through Repetitive, Tedious Speech,” where, in one case, a Party spokesman talked for so long he had “anesthetized an entire room of journalists with his old Berliner lilt.” Still, to Zeiger, it was his “life’s work, a substantial volume, the closest he’d come to fathering.”

I won’t give away what becomes of Zeiger’s search for Lara, but it’s ultimately both fantastical and beautiful. Throughout his pursuit, we learn that Zeiger was on his way to becoming a young orphan after his father was marched into oblivion, Germany having lost the Eastern Front during World War II. (The Eastern Front cost many German children their fathers, “when more stray dogs than grown men had roamed the streets.”) The process of becoming an orphan was complete after his mother received a small box, courtesy of the Soviets. Inside were the remains of her husband. Soon after, she had an “accident’ and “fell face forward into her Walther service gun.”

Dark stuff, indeed. However, the book is often wickedly funny. When a colleague presents a picture of his adult son (also gone missing), Zeiger sees in him “features reminiscent of circus performers with pituitary problems.” Further losing his repose, Zeiger says to this colleague, “I think I’m dying.”

“Differently than the rest of us?”

“I believe so.”

“What makes your death so special?”

“That it’s mine.”

Then there was that time in Zeiger’s career when he reported to work having not received the memorandum that the color gray had been banned within the Party. At HQ, everyone else wore clownishly bright attire. The concept of gray, he learned, “was the sustenance of skeptics.”

So there you have Zeiger, crushed by the Soviets in his youth and then made to do their bidding as an adult. And he knows it. “Failure and shame; iron and steel.”

There are moments in the novel when the question of “Why?” is asked. Why was insanity allowed to reign for so long? It’s almost impossible to find a satisfactory answer. One can only circle around it. “Misery was never content with its victories, not because it was greedy, but because it had no memory.”

The torturer ends up torturing himself. “Any room, he realized, can be a torture chamber. It need not be titled as such to become one. A bedroom, a pretty house, a state, one’s own porous skull.” Hofmann’s novel is a reminder that the building and ultimate tearing down of a wall that was meant to divide expended too many lives, lives that would have been better spent doing just about anything else.

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The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency by John Dickerson

The time is nigh, fellow citizens. This Tuesday, we shall exercise our franchise and elect a president. Many have made their respective choice already via absentee or mail-in voting, so tabulating the results among the 50 states could require some collective patience. Regardless, we do know that come January 20th, either Joseph R. Biden or Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office at noon, thus bestowing the privilege to wield the powers vested under Article II of the U.S. Constitution. Always a weighty event, now is a fine time to explore the office of the presidency.
This is what John Dickerson tackles in The Hardest Job in the World: The American Presidency. Mercifully, Dickerson doesn’t devote much time to what has been explored elsewhere, and for quite some time: that we are in the age of the “imperial presidency,” where the U.S. presidency now brandishes power beyond what the Constitution allows. It’s also known (perhaps somewhat erroneously) as the “unitary executive,” its more legalistic name. (I say “mercifully” because there’s plenty of excellent scholarship on this already.)
If anything, Dickerson addresses evolving presidential powers through anecdotes. For example, William Henry Harrison didn’t offer policy initiatives during his campaign, as he believed that would encroach on congressional prerogative. We now, of course, expect a whole array of presidential proposals, mostly of the domestic variety. However, when it’s realized that so much of the workday is spent addressing voluminous foreign policy matters, a new reality quickly manifests within a newly sworn president. Consider President Kennedy. Soon after taking the oath of office he was made privy to an operation that was already in full planning motion: The Bay of Pigs invasion.
President Eisenhower has received renewed interest in recent years, and Dickerson follows suit. Eisenhower developed a quadrant system where he assigned issues an importance level, Q1 housing the most urgent. He was prescient enough to realize that Q1 could swallow up a presidency; so the challenge was to ensure that the urgent didn’t crowd out other initiatives he wanted to achieve. (And did you know that Ike had such a bad temper White House staff referred to him, just among themselves no doubt, as “the terrible-tempered Mr. Bang”? Fully aware of his temper, Ike wrote in his journal, “Anger cannot win. It cannot even think clearly.”)
Dickerson doesn’t share such narratives as mere historical asides. He’s attempting to edify the reader on how our previous presidents led the executive and how historical events were met and managed by presidents, which in turn changed the presidency. Prime example number one is FDR’s initiated policies during the Great Depression. A lesser known example is that presidents were once not expected to be “on the scene” when natural disasters struck. LBJ changed that in 1965 after a hurricane devastated New Orleans. When his motorcade came across a 9th Ward high school sheltering displaced residents, LBJ addressed them: “I’m your president and I’m here to help you.”
Dickerson structured the book so that you can essentially pick any section and begin reading, as most anecdotes last only a handful of pages. But this is also the book’s greatest weakness. Just when you think you found a theme, we’re off to another president of another era, over and over again. Plus, there are too many plodding sentences telling us what a president should strive to accomplish. While I think Dickerson is correct on the merits, stylistically more than a few sentences made me wince. Dickerson was once a political reporter for Slate and Time. He’s a television reporter now, so maybe that’s why his writing has taken on a folksy sheen, where metaphors are freely mixed.
Still, the book certainly works well in spots. Dickerson seemingly knew that no U.S. political history book would be complete without revisiting the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The framers understood that the challenge was to establish a limited federal government that was still vigorous enough to function. While the will of the people manifests through elected representatives, their passions must be checked. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls would be necessary.” Thus the separation of powers: a bicameral legislature, an executive branch, and an independent judiciary. They knew that unscrupulous officeholders could be elected. What they hoped was that the institutions would survive.
I’ll leave it to you to wrestle with what the founders would think of the balance of power we have now. But I will say that they placed Congress under Article I of the Constitution for a reason. There are many factors that have led to waning congressional relevance (with gerrymandering leading the way), but it would be intriguing to know how the founders would process the practice of outsourcing legislation to the executive branch, where an executive order is decreed only for it to be summarily ended by the next president.
Dickerson uses his conclusion to offer modest remedies to the political realities we have now. I appreciate the effort, but I’m dubious. Dickerson acknowledges that there’s no longer an environment where a president and a ranking member of the opposing party will sit in a room and compromise à la President Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill. These two men were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, so they certainly argued. But when one crossed the line with a press comment, the other was called and offered an apology. They agreed on little, but they knew that governing such a large, heterogeneous country meant compromising so that there was working legislation to address complex problems. (Even President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich met privately to discuss legislation.) Anyway, yes, we should consider how to better our outsized presidency, as Dickerson proposes. But just as the political landscape we live in today resulted from accretion, so also is the hope for a return to a point where a moderating spirit between the two political parties is more rule than exception.

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The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson

History runs through St. Louis like a current.
It’s downtown as tourists spill around the Old Federal Courthouse—where the infamous Dred Scott case began—on their way to the glinting Gateway Arch, the national monument to Western Expansion, to empire. It flows westward to Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, and through the architectural grandeur of surrounding houses. Wending northward yields a scarred history with dilapidated red brick houses and embattled residents. The transition is striking, leaving even the most casual of observers to ask: What happened to St. Louis?
Walter Johnson, author of The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States, has some answers. From the book’s subtitle, it doesn’t take much to conjecture that his answers are far from any feel-good musings over a once halcyon St. Louis. If you want a narrative that waxes poetic about, say, the St. Louis Cardinals as it relates to the city’s history, look elsewhere. What Johnson, a Harvard professor and native Missourian, does provide is a deep look at St. Louis’s racial and political economy history. A book with resounding vitality, it is, in a word, incendiary.
St. Louis was the early republic’s long reach westward. It became the outpost where William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), serving as superintendent of Indian Affairs, oversaw treaties that ceded over 419 million acres to the United States. Still, this did not stop white settlers from calling him a “race traitor” after he ordered the removal of several hundred settlers along the Arkansas River to avoid conflict on Indian land. They refused the order and he was swiftly removed from office.
Such settlers found an ally in Senator Thomas Hart Benton, a man who sounded “like an angry god in love with his own voice.” Johnson brands Benton as one of the many “second-chance strivers” who made their way to Missouri because they missed making their fortunes either back East or down South. Total Indian removal to make way for white expansion was the order of the day. (Or, as Johnson puts it, “Genocide was the vanguard of empire.”) And St. Louis housed the key garrison. The legendary names we know from the Civil War (Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Sherman) spent their early military careers as Indian fighters stationed out of St. Louis.
This new influx of white inhabitants also had little use for slaveholders as they owned a potential impediment to white labor: slaves. St. Louis became fiercely anti-black and the site of the nation’s first recorded lynching. In 1836, just hours after disembarking a steamship, a free black man was accused of murder and then burned alive behind the Federal Courthouse. This view that blacks were essentially disposable was solidified by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott case, Chief Justice Taney writing that blacks (whether free or enslaved) “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
To be sure, St. Louis had its paradoxes. There was a relatively small slave population. Yet it had one of largest slave markets in the country. There was a white population that didn’t particularly care whether one owned a slave or not so long as said slave (and slave owner) didn’t impede their quest for property. The mid-1800s were complicated further with the arrival of Germans fleeing the Revolutions of 1848. And since many of them were Marxists, they believed private property should not exist at all, certainly not human chattel. As such, when the time came, quite a few Germans joined the Union Army. There’s a twenty-foot statue of Franz Sigel in Forest Park today. Sigel was a German-born St. Louisan who became a distinguished Union general. He was also, Johnson mordantly states, “a stone-cold communist.”
Following the war, Walt Whitman and William Tecumseh Sherman advocated moving the nation’s capital to St. Louis. And there was a brief period of unity between white and black laborers during the St. Louis General Strike of 1877, the first such strike in the nation. However, such solidarity had long since evaporated when, a few decades later, St. Louis passed its first segregation ordinance. Still, downtown St. Louis was full of verve and was nationally known as a “sporting city” (full innuendo). At the turn of the century, ragtime music, invented by black musicians, thundered out of St. Louis, the nation’s fourth most populous city.
But you wouldn’t find ragtime at the 1904 World’s Fair. (It was banned.) You would, however, find a spectacle that’s hard to fathom. In Forest Park, visitors could pay a nickel and pose for a photo with Geronimo. There was a “human zoo,” where Filipinos and Pygmies lived. During colder days, white ticket holders would throw rocks at their huts so that they would come out and perform. A young T.S. Eliot often bought daily tickets to the fair. A visitor might glimpse Mark Twain sitting down to dinner with Henry James.
Much of the twentieth century, according to Johnson, was a calculated effort to engineer a city that encouraged white flight to the suburbs (back when it was thought that the city would merge administratively with St. Louis County). The land where the Arch stands today was once seen by many as the “Greenwich Village of the West.” This mattered little to city officials, as it presented a “redevelopment” plan for the area. The 1935 bond issue passed overwhelmingly and 40 square blocks were bulldozed. (Yet it was soon revealed that the plan was a speculative real estate venture.) Interstates were expanded to encourage white mobility and racial restrictive covenants were common.
As with so many present-day municipalities, St. Louis struggles with viable ways to raise revenue. So enters the now ubiquitous TIF districts, where municipalities essentially have to “give it away.” Even if an area is blighted and developed, the resulting sales tax revenue comes at the expense of stagnant property tax levies. The result: perpetually underfunded schools.
Some may push back at Johnson’s stressing racial enmity as a constant thread running through St. Louis’s history. However, after reading of the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre, it seems that the onus shifts to having to explain how race was not a driving historical force. Officially, the death count is around 40. But historians believe the number is in the hundreds. (It also left 6,000 blacks homeless.) After the massacre, a congressional report concluded that the companies operating in East St. Louis cared nothing for the civic life of the area.
Johnson thoroughly unpacks the Ferguson of 2014 within the context of the Michael Brown shooting. There are reams of reports detailing how the city, via the police, went revenue-farming on poor black residents. But Johnson’s ire is focused on what was not included: the structural racism found in the area. (He notes that such racism is not unique to St. Louis; as we have seen, it’s fixed in many other cities as well.) This book is his response.
The St. Louis of today is one where a poor black child born in the North will have a life expectancy that is eighteen years shorter than a white child born in a nearby suburb. Such grim realities, Johnson notes, have an impact, and grassroots are forming. The challenges are legionnaire, but still they try. Johnson stops by a high school and watches a track meet. Even after the track coach’s son was shot dead by a police officer in 2017, she’s still there, trying. The kids are still out there running, some of them literally for their lives.

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Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godrfey-Smith

You and I stand on one of evolution’s most privileged branches. From this high vantage, eye some other branches and identify the animals you consider “smart.” Dolphins? Apes? Your dog and cat? Mostly mammals, I am guessing. (Although we should throw in select birds, especially crows.) Now dive off our branch and go back, down millions of years, well past the dinosaurs, and into the sea some 600 million years ago. You are at the early stages of animal evolution where the viciousness of predation has yet to arrive. While we do not know what our ancestor looks like exactly, nor the depth of water it best thrives, it is probably just a few millimeters long and receives sustenance via filtration.

Now ascend and return to the present. But instead of following the ancestral line whence we came, trail a different line that also emerges from this animal. Moving forward, here come the predators and prey with their various adaptations of assault and defense. One animal develops underwater jet propulsion to both overwhelm and flee. Follow that one. Returning to the present, but just below the water’s surface, look into the eyes of this creature that is intently watching you, an animal Claudius Aelianus in the third century C.E. described as one of “mischief and craft,” our long-lost “smart” cousin: the octopus.

In Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, Peter Godrfey-Smith argues that the octopus is probably the closest we will come to meeting alien life. By appearances alone, we can see his point. The Mars Attacks!-like dome (the mantle). The busy, yet mesmeric, eight arms that are being fed blue-green blood that is pumped through three hearts. With no natural angles, it is a “body of pure possibility.” It can squeeze through an aperture that is only a little larger than one of its eyes. It can change colors and camouflage itself so that one could be just a few feet from you, and you wouldn’t know it.

Because its neural architecture is completely different from vertebrates, Godfrey-Smith maintains that it is, in many ways, more useful to study what an octopus can do than what it is. Prior to reading this book, I was aware that octopuses were great escape artists. To wit: Turn your back on one in a lab and you could quite possibly turn back around to see the last glimpse of an octopus that had scuttled out of its tank, scooted across the floor, and climbed up and into the drain that leads back to the sea. Continuing with this, Godfrey-Smith describes how octopuses are quick to learn things in the lab that are completely new, and in no way natural to them, such as using levers and unscrewing jars, even when the octopus is inside the jar (!). There are so many anecdotes in this book that show off what whizbangs octopuses are I could use the rest of my allotted space sharing them. Still, and because I cannot help myself, here are two.

First, in the ocean, octopuses devour crab. In the lab, their fare is less than five stars, arriving in the form of thawed shrimp or squid. They don’t like it but will eat it out of lack of choice. One day, a researcher was walking down a line of octopus tanks, dropping a bite of squid into each. Reaching the end, she backtracked and noticed that the octopus in the first tank was seemingly awaiting her return and holding up the uneaten squid. Without taking its eyes off hers, the octopus moved across the tank and then flicked the offending piece of squid down the overflow drain.

Second, off the coast of Australia, a diver discovered an area that was densely populated with octopuses. Since octopuses are not very social, this was a unique find. (Godfrey-Smith would later dive this location, an area both he and the diver named Octopolis.) After many dives, one octopus approached him, took his hand, and led him on a ten-minute tour of the area, culminating with the octopus showing the diver its den.

Intriguing as these vignettes are the thrust of Godfrey-Smith’s book moves beyond highlighting octopus razzmatazz. Given that octopuses have a “mental surplus,” what are we to make of them? They have so many neurons throughout their arms, you essentially cannot delineate where the brain begins and ends. The octopus is a brain. What then is the relation between an octopus’s central and local control, meaning how autonomous is one of its arms? Can one arm explore and process here while the others simultaneously do the same elsewhere? (Imagine discovering, right now, that one of your hands had been writing a letter as you read this.)

Godfrey-Smith, a professor of philosophy, quotes William James in the necessity of studying the origins of consciousness, for while we know that humans have it in spades, we most certainly know, too, that it did not just explode into existence with humans. Given that the human brain forms its own subjective reality regarding existence, asking, “What does it feel like to be an octopus?” may seem illusive. But Godrey-Smith investigates these questions from a relatively high altitude (meant as a compliment), balancing the narrative so that it lacks neither readability nor academic bona fides. Throughout the book, the questions are framed for our own independent thoughts. He does make one declarative: If we ignore the health of the oceans, it will be at our peril.

It’s understandable that our high perch results in instinctive stargazing and wonder. What if contact from out there was made? Would there be any hope of us understanding each other? Would they see us as we see the octopus? Would they see our intelligence? Would they find us worth the effort?

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