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Critical Essay by Michael Kline
SOURCE: "Narrative Strategies in Garrison Keillor's 'Lake Wobegon' Stories," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 6, 1988, pp. 129-41.
In the following essay, Kline analyzes the different narrative approaches Keillor uses in his monologues about Lake Wobegon.
Garrison Keillor's immensely popular Lake Wobegon episodes, recounted for thirteen years (1974–1987) on his "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show, constitute a comic soap opera masterfully crafted by an expert storyteller. Given its radio format, Keillor's humor is managed by the strategies of oral presentation, differentiating it from written versions of the tales in Lake Wobegon Days, or even the modified radio monologues of Leaving Home, since oral presentation entails different modalities of grammar and rhetoric, elements of style, and paralinguistic features such as voice quality. Yet, in our print-based, literate culture, so far removed from the artistic traditions of societies in which the oral mode predominates, it is unlikely that a story-teller would achieve popular success merely by adopting the techniques of the bard. Alongside oral narrative techniques there exist in Keillor's monologues narrative strategies that we usually associate with written texts by virtue of their complexities of voice and mode. One of Keillor's greatest skills as a narrator is to use both oral and literate discourse features in complement, a practice which supports the view that there is no absolute dichotomy between written and spoken forms of language. As Tannen has stated, "Both oral and literate strategies can be seen in spoken discourse. Written discourse is not decontextualized … it is possible to be both highly oral and highly literate."
While we would expect that in our literate society written strategies would influence oral form, it is also the fact that the features of literate style found in Keillor's oral narratives—sophisticated subordination, grammar dependency and a lexically complex relationship between ideas and expression—are frequently disturbed by oral structures that coexist with them incongruously, producing a discursive humor that is not totally dependent upon content. The Keillor monologues interlace oral and literate styles without homogenizing them to the point that they cease to retain their own character or fail to produce particular effect. The elements of oral and literate narration may be separated for purposes of contrast, but we should remember that they combine in the tales to form the complex strategies, developmental approach, and rich texturing of a composite narration which undergirds the deceptively simple humor of the town that "the decades cannot improve."
In listening to the Lake Wobegon monologues one is rapidly struck by the "additive rather than subordinative" elements of the discourse, a characteristic typical of oral narration. Many of the best passages marking typical Lake Wobegon predicaments are strung together by coordinate clauses linked by and, rather than by connectors that subordinate ideas, such as so or because. These two general types of relationships between clauses are either paratactic or hypotactic. Hypotaxis is the "relation between a dependent element and its dominant" while parataxis "is the relation between two like elements of equal status, one initiating and the other continuing." Because in parataxis no element depends on any other, there is no ordering other than the sequential. It is the narrator who chooses to coordinate elements by means of extension rather than subordination.
The reliance on the connective and in paratactic construction is the source of much narrative humor for Keillor, who builds long strings of coordinate clauses, allowing one clause to enhance the meaning of another by qualifying it. Overqualification, however, soon grows into hyperbole, exaggeration of insignificant detail, enumeration of obsessive tendencies, or incongruous contrast. Semantic relations between propositions are not always clearly delineated, such that the events recounted often collide in a connived discursive reciprocity. Some good examples of this paratactic humor are found in a series of Lake Wobegon episodes devoted to Lyle, Florian Krepsbach's inept son-in-law, a high-school science teacher:
So as he was thinking about this and what a rewarding kind of life this would be compared to what he's doing now, he looked and he noticed and he was a little bit surprised to see between his index finger and his middle finger a cigarette that was there between his fingers. Which wasn't really surprising considering that it had come from a pack of cigarettes which was in his shirt pocket and he had taken it out and put it in his mouth, and lit it and yet he couldn't quite remember having lit it and as he looked at this thing between his fingers he thought to himself, "I don't need these any more" and took the pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket and threw it out the window and at the same time took his foot off the gas and coasted to a stop and turned around at the cross roads and came back to about the point where he thought he had tossed those. (Emphasis is mine in all quotations.)
Another case of accretive style reveals Lyle's estrangement from Wobegonian society (he is suspect because he teaches science and has only lived there for twelve years). Given his exclusion, Lyle is eager for recognition, and so he is easily taken in, as in this scene:
… he got a letter in the mail in a beautiful creamy envelope and he opened it and it said, "Dear Fellow Teacher: Congratulations, you have been selected by our awards committee to be included in the 1985 edition of 'Who's Who in Minnesota Secondary Education.'" And he was so thrilled, he sat down right away with this form you have to fill out with biographical information about yourself and didn't notice until later that the return address was in Escondido, California, and that this form for him to fill out with biographical information about himself was also an order blank for one copy of 'Who's Who in Minnesota Secondary Education' and that by signing it you agreed to pay $39.95 for a handsome leather-bound edition of this work….
The consecutive clauses are all equal in importance, since there are no other rhetorical organizers like firstly or moreover, which is a style perfectly adapted to Lyle's inability to distinguish the authentic from the unauthentic. Coordinative style perfectly suggests the mimetic dimension of character here, as the first three instances of and are "inflationary," leading to the heights of vanity, while the second group of three serve the comic deflation of pretense.
Furthermore, Keillor marks and as a discourse coordinator in order to identify upcoming "idea units" that are coordinate in structure to prior units. Paratactic style thus clusters and maximizes detail, while helping listeners to stay attuned to the narration through the development of the story along slowly evolving parallel lines. However, as Schiffren notes, and does not provide information about what is being continued nor about what is being coordinated. This situation is a key to Keillor's humor, for if content is repetitive, and syntax changes little, then the accretion, repetition, and incremental parallelisms of coordinative style work to form hyperbolic metonymic chains where one thing leads to another, until situations lose their logic due to overbearing detail or break down under the weight of accumulated evidence.
Furthermore, facts, statistics, or other precise elements in oral narratives are relevant only to human activities, and particularly to those which are situational. Anne Amory Parry made the point in citing the epithet amymon applied by Homer to Aegisthus, which means not "blameless," as many had believed, but "beautiful-in-the-way-a-warrior-ready-to-fight-is-beautiful." We need but contrast Aegisthus to Lyle at the end of the story about guilt:
And Lyle is full of pain, full of shame, full of guilt and still not smoking…. And when he feels at his worst then he goes out and he runs, which makes him feel even worse than that which makes him feel better in a way. He's not a runner, and if you see him out there on the roads you can tell that he's not. He's overweight, he's kind of flat-footed and he moves slowly when he runs…. But if you see him out there, if you see him out there on the road in the dust, running down the road in his old grey warm-up pants and his old letter jacket from high school which doesn't fit anymore so that you can't zip it up but he's hoping to some day, and the two little bike reflectors on the heels of his sneakers, when you see him out there running down a gravel road, old Lyle, don't feel sorry for him, don't feel bad for him. He's in misery, he's suffering, he's in pain, but it's OK, he's just one of us, just one of us sinners, you know, trying to make his way home….
Lyle, the underequipped warrior in life's struggles, is a man who jogs to expiate guilt, remembered as such by virtue of considerable vestmental detail. The notion of guilt and expiation is made palatable for the listener through the pathetically humorous vision of the overweight man paying his dues by the mile. Keillor arrives at his moral through the characters' situations, never in spite of them, and thereby keeps his monologues in the realm of humor, rather than permitting them to slide into sermonettes.
Keillor returns often to the most basic narrative level, that of the word, where redundancy is copious, creating a framework for humor by accretion, as action is driven to frenetic levels of pointless activity. The sound of language being derailed by its own mass and velocity is analogous to Bergson's notion of "mechanical inelasticity." While the man who slips on a banana peel becomes involuntarily objectified by circumstances, Keillor makes language the butt of a kind of discursive practical joke in which the narrator plays the role of Bergson's "mischievous wag" who intervenes to remove a chair just as the subject is sitting. Burdened by its own weight, and careening out of control, language has no other recourse than to collapse from the strain of sheer repetition. Thus, in the narrative referred to earlier, Lyle is found searching desperately for a cigarette. In the following passage, the combination of coordinate clauses and repetitions of the verb "look" not only measures the beat of Lyle's growing frustration, but transforms him into a comically maniacal creature of habit. Language and action fuse in the service of humor:
… and he was looking around in the dirty clothes hamper, hauling clothes out of there hand over fist one after the other looking in pants pockets, shirt pockets, looking in the pocket of his bathrobe—anything. Even looked in the medicine cabinet, who knows, who could tell, there might be one in the medicine cabinet. He took everything out of the medicine cabinet, he looked behind everything, he didn't find anything, he looked around on the floor….
This "redundant or copious" nature of oral style owes its existence to the "disappearance" of oral utterances as they are pronounced. Since the mind cannot return to a prior reference affixed to a printed page in order to check on the continuity of the narrative, it is important for the storyteller to move forward with caution, always keeping what has preceded in the narrative in the mind's eye of the listener. The result is not the linear progression identified with literate discourse, but a tale marked of necessity by redundancy and repetition, serving to position the listener periodically within the development of the story. Redundancy may therefore exist as a thematic marker, acting as a common thread for narrative development, but existing independently of story content. In one monologue, for example, the theme of guilt ties together five or six different events or commentaries. Thus, when Florian Krepsbach is knocked off his feet by the Deener boy on his bicycle, the old fellow is not really upset because he feels guilty for having left Myrtle at the truck stop (this incident is related to a prior story, but for Keillor's regular audiences the mere mention of it evokes laughter and ties it to the communality of experience among the reappearing characters). This situation leads to a comment by Keillor in the role of public narrator on the subject of the pleasant reaction of a woman into whose car he had just crashed, because apparently she was feeling guilty about something else. In turn, the Deeners are said to show too much guilt, since they thought the awful smell in the dining room was coming from themselves, rather than from the cat that had been plastered into a wall. In contrast, there follows a brief reference to egotistical "yuppie scum" who have not enough guilt, and, finally, the guilt theme circumscribes the narrative by dredging up none other than Lyle, who returns to suffer the guilt of having knocked his daughter Becky against the radiator during his desperate search for a smoke. Whereas purely oral societies find in story-telling a way to conserve knowledge, Garrison Keillor modifies the griot's role by both celebrating and mocking unbending tradition, in part by undermining the importance of narrative as the guardian of conceptualized knowledge. In the tales of Lake Wobegon, as it is in those of Balzat, Chelm, Mols, Schilda, and other communities of idiots, knowledge is incomplete, fossilized or irrelevant, such as the question of who remembers how to make lutefisk (it's Ralph), and, even more importantly, who is willing to eat it. Or, there is the case of Wendel, a high-school classmate of the narrator, who was sent to Venice as a Lutheran missionary. Poor Wendel had not had much luck proselytizing there. Some time later, he received a letter from the Lutheran Missionary Board informing him that they had meant to send him to Vienna! Not everyone in Lake Wobegon is an idiot, of course, but neither do the Wobegonians seem to advance much. The place is fixed as "the little town that time forgot and that the decades cannot improve," the motto of which is sumus quod sumus. Wobegonians have civic virtue and moral rectitude, and they persevere, so that "all the women are strong, the men are good-looking and the children are above average." These epithets are used for ironically comic effect, since in spite of their virtues and talents, what Wobegonians know and what they do are often at odds, making them appear singular and not infrequently lunatic.
The humor of logically illogical characters as an operational mode of Keillor's style is carried over to another aspect of oral narrative, that which is "empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced." Since the nonlinear nature of oral narrative does not permit leisurely references to past events, causality, or justification for prior actions, narrator and audience must know where they stand in relation to each other at all times. Keillor practices a type of phatic communication which enables him to jog the listener frequently, as well as to bring him or her into the tale. If we look at the example of Lyle as comic Aegisthus with an eye toward the relationship between narrator and audience, we can count numerous references to the listener in the form of the pronoun you. This you is not synonymous with the general-reference pronoun one, for the listener is progressively drawn into the narrative, when, for example, the hypothetical "if you see him out there," repeated three times, changes to the indicative "when you see him out there," followed by an imperative. By maintaining contact with the tale, the listener is guaranteed (tongue in cheek) that the character's mimetic dimension will be assured. Moreover, the moral of the story, that Lyle is "just one of us, just one of us sinners, you know …" is inclusive of narrator, character and narratee, all adherents to the same non-exclusive club of guilt-burdened members. Thus, monologic and interactive discourse, usually thought of as opposing parameters, are brought into complement to bond the auditor of the tale to its speaker.
This intimacy is felt throughout Keillor's Lake Wobegon stories. One might think that such a close relationship to the audience would be impossible in a format which supposes broadcasting the news from Lake Wobegon. But Keillor is no objective reporter, as all listeners recognize, because the "news" from Lake Wobegon doesn't really have the characteristics of news. What comes from Lake Wobegon has little sensational value, nor does it have general interest beyond itself. After all, every week is a quiet week there, for time has forgotten the place. If there is no reason to narrate the news, of which there is none anyway, telling it makes the listener suspect the presence of another narrative strategy, this one having to do with the relationship between narrator and audience. The artifice of supposedly phoning a contact in Lake Wobegon weekly to catch up on the non-news is a means by which to maintain a close relationship with listeners. Keillor can participate in and narrate the tale at the same time, since as conduit for Lake Wobegon's events of the week he can relate them, but because he supposedly maintains contacts there he can also position himself within the story whenever he wishes. Since a characteristic of oral narrative is always some kind of coincidence between whatever posture the speaker adopts and the existence of the speaker as a biographical person, Keillor can play both roles simultaneously, telling the tale and acting in it when he desires. The listener is thus implicated at both levels of the narration.
If we refer to the continuing saga of Lyle, we find this example of the kind of narrative play by which Keillor assumes the role of both protagonist and witness in order to justify his participatory narrational stance. Here Keillor is validating the contention that friendship exists in Lake Wobegon, but that one has to have lived there far longer than Lyle's twelve years to recognize it:
I was in the Side Track Tap one night this winter playing pinball. It was that old baseball machine which I've always liked, the old kind that doesn't beep, you know, it dings and it keeps score in the hundreds and the thousands and not in the hundreds of thousands. Kind of my speed, and I was standing there and doing pretty well at it and making it ring pretty well and getting it up to 9,000 and was on my bonus ball when suddenly a hole opened up out of nowhere and just ate this thing. And I looked at it and I felt a hand on my shoulder, on my right shoulder, and I turned to my right and there was Carl Krepsbach, who had been standing beside me and who put his arm around me and I tell you it may not sound like much but I just about burst into tears and sat down because I've known him, you see, just about all my life, and I know that he does not go around doing that. It was an amazing thing. I felt so grateful to him for it.
Keillor's autodiegetic participation, both internal and external to the spoken text is also a strategy that functions to confer upon him the authorization of the listener to tell the tale, given the diegetic authority which derives from the conceit of privileged purveyor of information from Lake Wobegon. This narrative ubiquity appears symbolically as a comic synecdoche in the perennial Keillor favorite, "The Living Flag." In that story, the Wobegonians form a living flag by wearing red, white or blue beanies and by positioning themselves properly in Main Street. Of course, when the flag is complete it is not possible to see it unless one breaks ranks and goes up to the roof of the Central Building to look at it, which, naturally, incites others to break ranks so as to take a peek. The living flag becomes a "sitting" and a "kneeling" flag, deformed by those defectors who wish to cease participating in order to observe. The narrational analogy to the problematic of the flag is well expressed by Jean-Paul Sartre's dictum in Nausea, "… il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter." In theory, one can't be authentically involved in life and have sufficient objective distance from it to tell about it at the same time. While it is impossible to assume the posture of grammatical first and third person narrative voice simultaneously, Keillor's strategy permits him to shift from the position of narrator to that of participant in order to create the illusion of being both outside the tale and within it. The external narration of Lake Wobegon activities, foibles, and secrets is maintained, while the internal narration establishes a homodiegetic presence among the Wobegonians, foci that link storyteller to audience from different perspectives. This dual point of view is a feature of contemporary literary practice, all the more remarkable when it is found in oral narration. It bridges both the oral and literate narrational features of the texts.
By the same measure that he assumes different types of focalizing perspectives as both external and internal narrator. Keillor works at different levels of narration through embedding stories within stories. The impression that his sub-tales seem to wander away from each other is only apparent. Successive narrations, even embedded ones, are held together thematically as well as by replication of content. They usually evolve organically, each succeeding narrative arising from the preceding one. The main theme is typically rejoined at the end of the story. Nevertheless, given the nonlinear nature of oral presentation, it is difficult to maintain contact with the listener using embedding, a strategy not unknown to oral narration, but more coherent in literate narration. The example of Father Emil's preretirement visit from the Bishop of Brainard illustrates how the primary humorous theme is maintained through a series of embedded stories, each funny by itself. The narrative begins when Mr. Odegaard's old Ford pickup won't start outside the Side Track Tap on the kind of cold day that only Minnesota knows. As Odegaard attempts to hitch a ride home, Mr. Bowser's green postal Chevy passes him by, for Bowser is deep in thought about organizing a cross-country riding-mower competition from New York to California. This story is then melded into another, which is provoked by a team of young evangelists from a bible college in Georgia who pass Mr. Odegaard by in their blue motor home. Finally, we arrive at the main tale, that of the Bishop, who arrives at the rectory to talk to Father Emil. He pulls up in a long, black limousine, it too passing Mr. Odegaard by, not once but twice, which prompts the old Norwegian bachelor farmer to hit it with a clod scooped from the side of the road.
Each of the stories contains separate content, but the unifying element is the series of vehicles, each one passing Odegaard, but not stopping for him. The vehicles themselves are not the main point of the story. They are a literate reprise, neither aggregative nor redundant, as in the oral mode. They are denotative signifiers of embedding in a tale which has many components and which of necessity needs to conform to the requirement of wrapping its successive layers into a circular pattern graspable by the listener as an Ariadne's thread. What is clever in this is the fact that although each of the successive stories has different content, they all function metonymically to create a framework for the main story, that of the bishop's visit to Father Emil. The layers of stories within the story serve the explicative function of embedding, which elucidates the punch line of the first narrative: why poor old Odegaard threw filth on the bishop's car. Thus, Keillor's strategy is to blend literate narrative formats with the demands of oral performance to form a narrative that is richly complex but easy to follow.
Narrators must convince their audience to give authorization for the mimetic process to a mimetic authority. Literate narration frequently shifts the burden for establishing mimetic authority to the character, often assigning the role of speaking and seeing to internal focalizers, characters who function as cameras or recorders and who adopt a point of view. Keillor does this too, but he often creates humorous effect by limiting, rather than sharpening, the focalizing capacities of a character. In the case of the bishop's visit, for example:
Halfway into algebra, the long black car sat by the curb, its motor running, so that the children who went to the blackboard to work problems all looked out the window and down, watching that car, clouds of exhaust coming out, until sister Arvonne said, "Don't look at it, don't think about it, I'm watching it, I'll let ya know if anything happens." What happened, though she didn't know this and still doesn't, was that Father Emil had submitted his resignation as priest asking to be relieved of his duties—he's 74.
In this case, the comic effect is produced by a script switch in which the curious nun is left as much in the dark as her pupils. Sister Arvonne's limited knowledge causes her failure to perform as an effective focalizer. Her view of things is then transformed to direct discourse, which in turn serves as a stepping-stone for the external narrator to return in order to provide the needed information. That move in turn provides rationale for a "historical" explanation of the founding of Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Church, yet another embedded story.
Characters' point of view is usually associated with literate discourse, but it can find its way into oral narrative through techniques such as the narrator's mimicry of the characters' voices or their intonation. In this vein, characters often speak directly in the Lake Wobegon monologues. It is unusual, however, to find oral narratives that not only include the direct and indirect discourse of characters, but also the literary device of free indirect discourse, in which the focalizing function of the character is blended with the syntax of the narrator. Keillor uses free indirect discourse effectively as a focalizing mechanism and as a strategy to vary the level of discourse from that of simple internal or external focalization. In this way, the narrator is not restricted only to what the character knows, or to what can be observed from outside, but a third dimension of focalization may be achieved, one that includes both perspective and level, in a melding of characters' discourse with narrator's point of view. The following example occurs in the episode known as "Tomato Butt," in which air conditioning has become a topic of some interest to Lake Wobegonians:
It was when Mrs. Deener got an air conditioner that people started to talk. There was nothin' wrong with her. Who did she think she was? She said that she got it for her daughter because her daughter would break into a heat rash, but her daughter only came to visit for a couple of weeks during the summer, and she always came in June. So what did she need it for? Mrs. Deener said, "Well," she said, "as long as I've got to have it I might as well get the use of it…." And I decided that air conditioning was something that I'd dearly love to have.
In this passage the external narrator's introduction leads into a discourse of gossip which is neither direct, as is Mrs. Deener's, nor indirect, in which case it would be introduced by the narrator, most commonly following a relative pronoun. In fact, the free indirect discourse contains within it indirect discourse as metanarrative ("She said that she got it …"). Moreover, the counterpoint of free indirect discourse and direct discourse then permits the shift to homodiegetic narration, in which the indirect discourse of the narrator as boy in Lake Wobegon is introduced, leading finally to the moral of the story and a laughter-provoking twist. The richness of this frame is based upon the tripartite view of the air-conditioning problem as seen in the three modalities of discourse.
Free indirect discourse is generally used by Keillor to evoke the presence of the character within the extradiegetic narration, thus affording a brief binocular vision as extradiegetic narration and intradiegetic narration fuse. In this example, Lyle has finally caught on that his insertion in "Who's Who" is merely a commercial venture, a vanity press seduction:
He filled it out all the way down to the bottom and then he saw little boxes down there to be marked "Check enclosed" or "Visa" or "Master Card." Oh, [snort] no wonder they mailed it to him at home, not at work. All the teachers in Minnesota probably got one, every single one. What a sucker! He felt like such a sucker.
The first paragraph, focalized externally, yields to free indirect discourse in the second. The paralinguistic snort is a concession to the oral format, as well as a marker for the change to free indirect discourse, which then continues as it would in a literate text. Lyle's vanity is underscored by his brief appearance at the moment of his epiphany, his words grafted onto the extradiegetical narrator's syntax. Finally, the external narration pulls away from the eruption of the character onto the scene by another bow to orality, as the narrator reestablishes himself extradiegetically in the last sentence through a redundant statement that merely repeats from his perspective what Lyle has already told us. The sequence thus begins in the oral mode then moves into the literate mode, finally returning to the oral mode. These focalizing displacements emphasize the superiority of listener over narrated subject, which is the source of humor in this instance.
Finally, in the same way that redundancy must be built into the oral narrative to remind the narratee of the development of the tale, so do oral cultures avoid abstract analytic categories per se, those having no relationship to activities in the real world. Oral style is "close to the human lifeworld," since in oral cultures the elements of the tale are never remote from lived experience. The same may be said for Keillor's stories, for even in their most complex configurations, they remain rooted in life experiences. In the story about guilt, for example, Keillor opens his narrative with a temporal marker:
Last Saturday, as a matter of fact, right about the time I was talking about him on the radio, last Saturday afternoon, Florian Krepsbach came out the door of the Side Track Tap in the early evening before supper, having gone in for a bump….
The notion of time here is fairly abstract, since Keillor is using a "split screen" technique to create a spacio-temporal distance between himself as external narrator and the character, who is seen to have an authenticated past and autonomy of action, given Florian's "presence" in Lake Wobegon, his presence in the preceding week's monologue, and Keillor's double presence on the stage, that of last week and that of this week. Moreover, the charm of Keillor's narration in this instance derives from the interplay of the spatial and temporal facets of focalization. Keillor plays at being a narrator with a limited point of view who is able to describe what characters do only because he gets "news" of them weekly. His true optic is panoramic, which allows the simultaneous description of events separated in space. In the same way, focalization here is panchronic, where it is possible to perceive all temporal distances together. The listener understands that Keillor, as narrator, controls the complete range of temporal distance through the past, present, and even future of the character, but what is "assumed" by the narration is a limited focalization in time, one that is circumscribed by the present tense of the character. Thus, while Keillor talks about Florian in the past, another Florian, one whose autonomy is assumed by the narrator, circulates in his own present moment at the very instant his past is being recounted. The character is therefore free to develop in a natural way, integrated into the time and space of Lake Wobegon's rhythms. All of this takes place, however, within the context of a familiar Lake Wobegon haunt. Florian's verisimilitude as a character is linked not to an abstract, literate notion of time and space (which is nevertheless present), but to a "real-world" situation which defines him as an old-time Lake Wobegonian who likes his afternoon pick-me-up after a slow day at the Chevy agency. The old fellow's bump is yet another example of the interlacing of the oral and the literate, for it marks his place in the spacio-temporal matrix of stories whose organicism in the form of continuously evolving situations is never calcified by the fact of their sophisticated narration.
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