The Sisters Brothers
  • March 30, 2012


  • Patrick deWitt

    Z1The Sisters Brothers
    3Open City

    Teju Cole

  • Judged by

    Duncan Murrell
    + All Judges

Open City

Duncan Murrell: So: the Zombie and the gunslingers return to the Thunderdome, where sometimes two books enter and two books leave. But not today, for today is judgment day, and though mine is only 1/16th of the final judgment and I received fewer books in the mail than any other judge—all of that a flat-out insult—I’ll do my level best to sort this thing out.

Duncan Murrell is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and The Normal School. He is the writer-in-residence at the Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, and a former editor at Algonquin Books. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “I once published a book by Michael Ondaatje’s wife, Linda Spalding. I once was on a panel with Ann Patchett’s mother.”

We’ve already read both of these books several different ways, all of which have seemed defensible and smart. I particularly liked Alyssa Rosenberg’s reading of both books, and would gladly say ditto under different circumstances. However, because my opinion may hold no weight, I feel free to choose a reading that’s neither defensible nor particularly smart, and though I believe this reading has been suggested by the books themselves, it may very well only be a response to my own damage. I’m now talking about death.

Open City inhabits a gray area. As in the work of the oft-mentioned Sebald, the fiction inhabits a rift world of the not-quite living and the not-quite dead. This makes me a little uncomfortable, which is why I think I like these fictions. Cole (and Sebald) have rescued ghosts from their sequestration in the freak shows and among the spiritualists, the ghost hunters and the crystal eaters. Their kind of fiction restores the ghost to its rightful form out of the material of memory. There’s no rattling of bones, no boogity-boogity nonsense, and yet the effect of memory is to contort the living, to affect lives and sometimes ruin them. Memory in these fictions arranges itself in flashes—the dead rise up out of dormant synapses to speak before disappearing again. “Death” is another word for forgetting, “forgetting” sometimes a word for murder, and “ghosts” a word for the kinds of memories that won’t be forgotten no matter how badly you want to forget them.

Moji is a ghost, though flesh and blood. Julius’s forgetting of her, and the violence he committed against her, obviously demands a haunting. In a moment at the end of the novel, the ghost takes Julius onto the balcony of an apartment and, while the rest of the known world sleeps, makes her accusation, ending with:

I don’t think you’ve changed at all, Julius. Things don’t go away just because you choose to forget them. You forced yourself on me eighteen years ago because you could get away with it, and I suppose you did get away with it. But not in my heart you didn’t. I have cursed you too many times to count.

In most ghost stories, this would bring a mighty reckoning. The metaphorical furies would tear him up, the eagles would eat his liver. The horror in this ghost story, though, is that Julius doesn’t feel remorse in any noticeably human way. The release of confession and contrition—the holy and ancient exorcism—are not available to him. He seems entirely unaffected by this haunting of his past. No, I take that back: Given the pleasure Julius takes in his peripatetic walker-in-the-country-of-history adventures, I assume he takes some kind of pleasure even in this haunting. Confronted by Moji, Julius “thought of how, in his journals, Camus tells a double story concerning Nietzsche and Gaius Mucius Cordus Scaveola, a Roman hero from the sixth century B.C.E.”

That’s an awfully horrifying response disguised as a soporific footnote, and it’s entirely consistent. Julius’s project becomes clear in that moment. His peripatetikos isn’t about exorcising memories but about collecting them and embellishing them. He gathers them as proxies for something else he’s missing. He also incessantly saves glimpses of bird-souls as a kind of augury, sees the stars and regrets those he can’t see, and on occasion he lets the dead cross over into the living, as he does with the shoeshine man apparently not of our time. (This man is in fact the venerable Pierre Toussaint, a real man and candidate for sainthood.) Julius is, as he says, living in a massive blind spot, alone except for what he can find to take the place of what he can’t see.

I don’t know whether to love Julius or to be sickened by him, but I know that I have strong feelings about him. I think Alyssa Rosenberg is right, that there is an emptiness at his center that is his punishment. And I believe that by the end of this novel Julius understands this—his reading of his world always points to that conclusion. He’s a monster, and a very human one. He’s himself as much a ghost as he is a man.

The Sisters Brothers also trucks with ghosts and is at least as full of death as Open City, but these ghosts are standard ectoplasmic freakouts: little child poisoners, old houdou women dolling up enchanted doors, and painted furies punishing the wicked and stealing their money. Such ghosts are common devices and signifiers, arriving from nowhere and disappearing suddenly in a poof of metaphor. These are creations of literature and artifice.

Eli, the narrator of The Sisters Brothers, has no problem sorting out these signs, since nearly every person he encounters is just a moment away from unburdening their souls. For instance, here is a barefoot man lovingly stroking the chicken he carries under his arm, whom the brothers encounter on their arrival in San Francisco. Eli asks him about the many ships sitting at anchor with cargo still unloaded, and here are the chicken man’s first words:

“Abandoned by their crews,” he told us. “When the fever to dig is upon you, there is not a second to spare. Certainly one cannot be expected to unload crates of flour for a dollar a day with the rivers singing their song so nearby.” Blinking at the horizon, he said, “I often look out at these boats and imagine their baffled investors, impotently raging in New York and Boston, and this pleases me.”

There’s some back and forth in this manner, possibly some more blinking at the horizon, then the chicken man tells them of a suicide the day before:

“There is a feeling here, which if it gets you, will envenom your very center. It is a madness of possibilities. That leaping man’s final act was the embodiment of the collective mind of San Francisco. I understood it completely. I had a strong desire to applaud, if you want to know the truth.”

The barefoot chicken men one meets these days are rarely so incisive, to put it politely. Perhaps the chicken men of 19th-century San Francisco were a different order of men. I’d feel bad about quoting this out of context except that this is only one of many such conversations Eli conducts with strangers. The 19th-century West, in deWitt’s rendering, is lousy with gabby men having existential crises, first among them the narrator Eli whose interior life seems entirely given over to questions of theodicy. (The few women mostly don’t talk except to negotiate terms, if you savvy.) I suppose you could accuse Dante of not being strictly realistic about tours of the underworld, and there is a strong Dantean flavor in The Sisters Brothers, but I found this element of the novel hard to accept.

I’ve been told I should read this as a po-mo upending of the conventions of the Western, and I’ve tried. But I don’t see much upending going on after all that pondering and rending of garments. (When I think of upending the Western, I think of books like The Ox-Bow Incident.) The world ruled over by the Sisters brothers, who are very clearly some embodiment of cruel and unpredictable Fate, organizes itself along pretty familiar lines: weakness gets punished with violence, the eternal victory goes to the strong. When Charlie and Eli go limping home to mama, penniless and missing one hand, it’s because they allowed themselves a moment of weakness. The novel’s own principles are clear on this point. The choice the brothers face is whether to give in to greed tempered by mercy, the punishment for which is failure and amputation; or to commit another murder for the Commodore, their god. This is a dark, heartless world, far less forgiving of human nature than even that of Open City.

A final fact about both books that shouldn’t be ignored: the author who wrote The Sisters Brothers is a proper wizard effortlessly firing off great stretches of fantastic language and dark humor, and the author of Open City writes bloodlessly in a brittle and impacted language that occasionally finds a cold beauty, but is mostly just stiff and archaic. This distinction between the two is so obvious it needs no explanation, but it does raise a question about reading, and criticism, and tournaments of books. That is, do you pick the book by the more talented storyteller? Or the one by the more thoughtful and humane writer?

I read The Sisters Brothers in two sittings. The Sisters Brothers is a book I’d want to have a drink with in a pub. I would make Open City sit in the corner over there where it could brood and talk to itself all it wanted until closing time. In fact, I wrote this in two pubs, in the White Swan and later in The Plume of Feathers, in Markyate, Hertfordshire, which is in England, north of London, not far from Whipsnade and Slip End. These words are very nice to say and to type, all but Markyate, which I keep spelling “Mary-Kate.” This puts me in mind of another wicked lady, Lady Katherine Ferrers, the 17th-century outlaw, who was from Markyate and terrorized the Nomansland Common. Chris White, the bassist in The Zombies, was also from Markyate. He wrote a song about the town that ends like this:

Oh, roads in my mind take me back in my mind
And I can’t forget, you won’t forget, you
Won’t forget those days and Beechwood Park.

I think it’s obvious I prefer Open City.

[Open City 1 • The Sisters Brothers 0]

Emma Straub: This final round feels like a rematch of the first two books I had to judge, with Open City taking the contemplative and quotidian place of The Sense of an Ending, and The Sisters Brothers wearing The Devil All the Time’s sticky, bloody mantle. I was absolutely sick over my decision last time, and slightly embarrassed that I had chosen the “safe” book. Well, well! It is with some joy and trepidation that my final choice is the shoot-em-up page-turner The Sisters Brothers, which I galloped through in a single sitting. Though I can understand the appeal of Open City, it’s won plenty of prizes, and will no doubt continue to do so. Bang, I say, bang! All hail the fabulous Sisters boys!

[Open City 1 • The Sisters Brothers 1]

Mark Binelli: The Sisters Brothers. Enjoyed both books, but ultimately the Cole felt (as others have noted) like too much of a Sebald bite.

[Open City 1 • The Sisters Brothers 2]

Misha Angrist: I’m a little mystified that Open City made the championship. A stunning upset, no? Or was the field that lame? Anyway, I found the prose to be crisp and the imagery often dazzling, but the story felt solipsistic and ponderous. As the man said, “I just like it more when stuff happens in a story.” Amen, brother. A little humor would have gone a long way, too.

The Sisters Brothers is both funny and action-packed. The brothers of the title are complicated and tortured. The narrative is compelling and the author succeeds at putting the story ahead of any need to show us either what a wonderful writer he is or how Very Important his book is. Winner: The Sisters Brothers.

[Open City 1 • The Sisters Brothers 3]

Bethanne Patrick: This decision was no contest for me, although I did at least try and lessen my bias for Cole’s sinuous inversion of Bloomsday by giving The Sisters Brothers a careful re-read. deWitt’s novel is such fun to read, mixing as it does a sort of dime-store-paperback and spaghetti Western ragu, that I nearly forgot I had to render a judgment—which is great. However, its singularity failed to connect to anything greater for me. The minute I put it down, les freres Sisters were gone from my mind, even though while I was with them their “picaro-ics” painted a lively tableau in my head. On the other hand, Open City narrator Julius, whose steady observations (even when those observations made me uncomfortable) made him seem almost like a real-life acquaintance. I know that when I pass certain places in New York City from now on (e.g., The Cathedral of St. John the Divine), I’ll feel Julius standing next to me, offering his worldly and weary and very intelligent commentary. I choose Open City.

[Open City 2 • The Sisters Brothers 3]

Wil Wheaton: I was delighted that The Sisters Brothers made it to the championship; as I said in the opening round, I really want it to win this thing. So you may think that I’d bury Open City in a box in the yard and just give The Sisters Brothers my vote. However, I take my responsibilities as a judge very seriously, so I gave Open City a fair chance to defeat The Sisters Brothers.

It’s a lovely little book, and it’s beautifully written. It’s occasionally poetic, and always lyrical, but…nothing ever happens. The Sisters Brothers told a compelling story that kept me engaged until the final page, while Open City painted a beautiful series of pictures that were wonderful to look at, individually and together, but never coalesced into a story that engaged me. I vote for The Sisters Brothers, and I swear that the fix was not in.

[Open City 2 • The Sisters Brothers 4]

Haven Kimmel: I agree with what all the judges and commenters have had to say about Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers: It’s funny and pleasurable and surprising. I loved the grit and violence interspersed with real tenderness and befuddlement from Eli, as well as Charlie’s inscrutability. The historical elements felt right without being mired in detail, and deWitt even managed to pull off protagonists who are likeable sociopaths. I read it quickly and liked it from the beginning. But Open City is in a completely different class of novel. The comparison between Cole and W.G. Sebald is a good one, and their similarities are so welcome, at least to a reader like me who is still mourning Sebald’s death. Cole’s sophistication, the acute quietness of his prose (quietness that gains tension with every page), the formal structure that narrows to a claustrophobic point before the reader realizes it’s happening: This book is masterful.

[Open City 3 • The Sisters Brothers 4]

Edith Zimmerman: The Sisters Brothers was a fun Western with moments of genuine and unexpected tenderness, whereas Open City had a narrator who seemed to be in love with the sound of his own voice (and his knowledge of proper nouns), which was off-putting from the first sentence. Winner: The Sisters Brothers.

[Open City 3 • The Sisters Brothers 5]

Jay Caspian Kang: I can’t get Open City out of my head. Maybe it’s some tyranny of significance at work, but I can’t remember reading a book in the past few years that has felt as weighty and important. It’s been my antidote to the internet—whenever I find myself a bit too caught up in cat videos, basketball stats, or penguins on airplanes, I pick up the copy of Open City on my desk and use it to clear out my head. And for that alone, I can’t think of a better book for 2011.

[Open City 4 • The Sisters Brothers 5]

Roxy Reno: I read Open City several months back and didn’t care much for it. Anti-climatic, no plot, blah, blah, blah. We have heard it before. The Sisters Brothers is sinister, moving, and humorous. I fell head over heels and I think this book would be a riot for anyone to read. I am going to recommend it every chance I get.

[Open City 4 • The Sisters Brothers 6]

Oscar Villalon: As a straight-ahead entertainment—one told in beautifully turned sentences of description—I think The Sisters Brothers can’t be beat. But as an entertainment, the stakes aren’t as high, of course. Open City, which is also beautifully written, and entertaining in a different way, is playing at something bigger and succeeds. (Ironically, you finish Sisters under a note of grace and come away from Open with the feeling of impending doom.)

[Open City 5 • The Sisters Brothers 6]

Missy Mazzoli: I don’t need the excessive violence of The Sisters Brothers to keep my interest but Open City was just cold and plotless enough to lose me halfway through. While the beautiful description of hearing Mahler’s 9th and then getting locked on the Carnegie Hall fire escape brought tears to my composer eyes, I had more of a mock fist-shaking “where has this been all this time” reaction than anything else. The Sisters Brothers all the way.

[Open City 5 • The Sisters Brothers 7]

Alex Abramovich: Patrick deWitt’s slick, Gold Rush shoot-em-up The Sisters Brothers doesn’t quite congeal, whereas Teju Cole’s Open City (which I picked the other week, over Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot) is thick in ways that make it a slog to get through. Both authors have bright futures ahead of them. But deWitt’s book is the better read, and gets my vote in this year’s ToB.

[Open City 5 • The Sisters Brothers 8]

Michelle Orange: The lonely voice of the outsider powers both of these books, which are not as far apart as they might seem. I found Open City’s contrast of compulsive engagement/reclamation and detached interiority dazzling in parts but wound up admiring Cole’s approach more in theory than in execution. Ultimately the narrator’s opacity and alienation were too effective: I got the point, but the point didn’t get me. Where Open City works to bend the novel to its will, in embracing and really just nailing one of its genres The Sisters Brothers seems to revel in what only fiction can do. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but the oater with the intermissions and the arresting narrative voice is the one that took dead aim at my readin’ heart.

[Open City 5 • The Sisters Brothers 9]

Alyssa Rosenberg: For consistency’s sake, my vote stays the same: Open City over The Sisters Brothers. I’m still just in love with Teju Cole’s New York, where the ghosts of distant and recent past, of historical significance and personal memory, accompany an immigrant who represents a bit of our future in his wandering through a chimerical city. And I find Open City’s loose ends more powerful than the neat (if bloodily accomplished) reset that comes at the end of The Sisters Brothers. Some readers might think Julius should be punished more gravely for his past bad acts, or that the novel should spend more time reflecting on them. But I think that short, sharp shock is the point: The people we hurt may see us more clearly than we see our own brokenness.

[Open City 6 • The Sisters Brothers 9]

E. Lockhart: Both of these are books about what it is to be a man. Open City is more ambitious—it is about race and identity, cities, psychotherapy. It is structurally surprising and intellectually engaging, but I did not, could not, deeply connect with the evasive, meandering Julius the way I did with earnest, questing murderer Eli. I am judging this round not on my perception of the novelists’ aspirations but on their storytelling. For its high style and narrative propulsion, The Sisters Brothers wins my vote.

[Open City 6 • The Sisters Brothers 10]

Walter Kirn: Due to a recent, unforeseen medical incident, Walter was unable to complete the books by press time.

[Open City 6 • The Sisters Brothers 10]

THIS YEAR’S CHAMPION: The Sisters Brothers

Match Commentary

By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner

Kevin: Well, for the second year in a row, a vengeful Zombie has returned in the championship to vanquish the very book that gave it the boot. This is the result I was rooting for, so I don’t know why I didn’t expect the judges to love The Sisters Brothers like a flash mob loves a food court. It really is a crowd-pleaser of a novel and I hope a lot more people read it, and also that some billionaire ToB fan who wants to be in showbiz gives John C. Reilly all the dough he needs to make this movie.

Do you think we have any billionaire ToB fans? There’s got to be at least one.

It seemed to me that most everyone (with maybe a couple of exceptions) really liked deWitt’s book, and the ones who voted against it were mostly registering the fact they appreciated what Cole was doing more. It’s the beating heart of the debate we have here year after year. Although our judges are generally not the same cross-section as the general reading public I think this time (and probably most times) their ultimate decision would have reflected the populist one, if we were to give both books to every reader in America.

Field NotesBuy anything from Field Notes during the ToB and receive a special red, letterpress memo book free. Use coupon code ROOSTER.

Which is by no means an insult to Teju Cole. Open City is a book that lives within you for a while. I saw it in myself and I saw it in the comments every time Open City went into battle. People were reconsidering their opinion of it, formulating new theories, tossing out different hypotheses. I wonder if we had asked the judges to wait a week after they had read both books, if their opinions would have been different. Maybe not enough to sway the verdict, but I wonder if the score might have been closer.

John: A comfortable, but not overwhelming victory for The Sisters Brothers, which is, of course, obvious in hindsight. The book is just totally charming while still being plenty substantive, while Open City is pretty much guaranteed to deflect a non-negligible portion of its readers because of its more closed-off nature.

It’s reassuring to see that order has been restored and my prognosticating skills are proven again to be reliably wrong. Because of this, I’d like to predict a fourth-place finish in the Central for the Cubs this year.

So, congratulations to Patrick deWitt, Rooster champion, who had this to say when word of his victory reached his ears:

I was moving house with a heavy heart and a headache from the going-away party when I got word that The Sisters Brothers had taken the prize, which made me feel quite a lot better. Thank you very much for this. I appreciate the work that went into the Tournament, and the dialogue surrounding it. I bow to the judges and the authors, too. Please don’t send me a rooster in the mail. But really, and again, thank you.

One of the yearly traditions I’d like to continue is a kind of “watch list” for next year’s tourney. In surveying last year’s list, I see I hit on seven out of 16 of the eventual nominees, including Open City, but not including The Sisters Brothers—which is to say, this doesn’t mean all that much, but it’s nice to start looking forward since parting from the tournament always induces some measure of sorrow. In no particular order, the books thus far this year that have gotten on my personal radar are:

  • The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
  • Threats by Amelia Gray
  • Brain on Fire by Susanna Cahalan
  • Canada by Richard Ford
  • The Master Blaster by P.F. Kluge
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
  • Arcadia by Lauren Groff
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
  • The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
  • Flatscreen by Adam Wilson
  • The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland
  • Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison
  • You and Me by Padgett Powell
  • Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
  • In One Person by John Irving
  • Home by Toni Morrison
  • Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
  • The Cove by Ron Rash
  • Pure by Julianna Baggott
  • Dead Low Tide by Bret Lott
  • The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  • How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
  • Zombie by J.R. Angelella
  • That’s Not a Feeling by Dan Josefson
  • Carry the One by Carol Anshaw
  • Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
  • Dogma by Lars Iyer
  • Gorilla Beach by Nicole Polizzi
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
  • Mountains of the Moon by I.J. Kay
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner
  • Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
  • Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub

Those titles are heavily skewed toward major publishers because, let’s face it, they have an easier time getting on people’s radars, so those of you well-versed in small press and independent books, please do chime in with your own personally anticipated titles so we can have some kind of record.

What are you looking forward to in the coming year, good buddy?

Kevin: I’m already on record as raving like a JetBlue pilot over Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. The very next book on my pile is The Orphan Master’s Son, and I’m very excited to start it. I always look for big writers who have never been in the ToB, and there are some doozies this year—Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, Padgett Powell, John Irving. Even though I haven’t been crazy about his last few novels (specifically, the second half of his last few novels), I still get a little goosepimply every time there’s a new Irving book in the chamber.

Tom Wolfe was in the ToB the first year and did quite well with a book that was coolly received. If there’s a big row around Back to Blood (which does seem a little meatier than I Am Charlotte Simmons) it might be hard to leave out. Toni Morrison is a former champion, as is Hilary Mantel.

You didn’t mention Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, which I think will get a hard look, as will Ellen Ullman’s By Blood. Some of my personal faves just from your list would include Gillian Flynn, Mark Leyner, Jess Walter, and John Green. Emma Straub, of course, was an excellent judge this year, so we’re all much anticipating her novel. On the genre front I would add Tana French’s Broken Harbor, China Mieville’s Railsea (which looks like it has more Moby-Dick references than The Art of Fielding—hey, wait: Mieville/Melville!) and Charlie Newton’s Start Shooting, which I’ve already read and it’s a hoot for fans of neo-noir.

John: I can hear the opening strains of “One Shining Moment” playing in the background, so we need to pack ourselves up for another year, but let me offer a few additional thoughts before signing off.

The internet is an amazing thing. It’s what makes yearly fun-fests like our little gathering here possible. Not to mention, that if I’m ever despairing about the state of humanity, or in need of a good, cathartic cry, a video of dogs greeting returning soldiers is just a click away.

But internet comments are a whole ‘nother ballgame. I sometimes imagine alien intelligences monitoring our society via internet comments or Twitter and deciding that we are a rage-filled and ignorant species that needs to be eliminated for the good of universe-kind.

Though, if this were really happening, we would’ve been vaporized following the spate of racist comments about The Hunger Games casting.

All of which is to say, that for me, the best part of the tournament is the comments, and the spirit that pervades them. They are not without disagreement, or the occasional elbow or borderline low blow, but by and large there is far more light than heat and I’d be hard pressed to find another corner of the World Wide Web where this is the case. We’re actually in some discussion right now to find a way to keep the spirit going in this space year-round, which we’re hoping will bear some measure of fruit. The best way to keep on top of such developments is to like the Tournament of Books on Facebook, and subscribe to The Morning News Twitter feed.

So, thank you commenters, thank you Kevin, thank you judges and the people at TMN that make this possible (Andrew Womack, Rosecrans Baldwin (whose new book you can still win a copy of), Nozlee Samadzadeh, Liz Entman Harper). It was a blast, and I’m exhausted in that way you feel after you’ve done something difficult, but worthwhile, like running a marathon, or watching every back episode of Breaking Bad—consecutively.

Kevin: I nod furiously at all of that. Let’s also thank our terrific sponsors, Field Notes and Powell’s, the latter of which is welcoming a victory for the home team today thanks to Portlandian Patrick deWitt.

Also, congratulations to two commenters from yesterday who were randomly chosen from those who posted correct predictions of the final score, Ally Berke and Amelia C. Someone will be in touch with you soon to arrange for your prize packs.

John, you and I go back to doing all this by email for the next 11 months, but as you say, I do think there’s a chance that TMN could be cooking up some kind of “Hot Stove” projects to keep the Rooster fire burning in the off-season. Everyone here has to figure out their chewing capacity before we take a bite of that one, but I’m excited about the idea.

Thanks so much to everyone who followed the tourney and especially to all who chipped in. You’re my best friends.

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