The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

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John: I wish that 2666 made it through to the finals.

There, I said it.

Don’t get me wrong, the appeal of the book still largely mystifies me, but I think it is, hands down, the 2009 ToB MVP. No book has generated more controversy, more discussion, more passion, and I think it would’ve been great to just—you know—have it out once and for all in a final battle royale with each of our distinguished judges weighing in on the choice.

It’s kind of like how I thought I’d be glad that Billy Packer was done as the lead color man for the NCAA tournament. Packer infuriated me, with this pro-ACC bias and his refusal to ever criticize a coach, and his, you know, racism. But in watching this year’s other March Madness, I’ve got to say, maybe I miss the old coot a little. I think he’s a know-nothing, self-important shithead, but isn’t that interesting?

Nah, Packer’s an asshole, good riddance, long live Clark Kellogg.

The Rookie of the Year Award goes to our commenters. The audience comments are, by far, the most interesting new feature of the tournament, perhaps ever, and I know they’ve pushed me to reconsider my own thoughts dozens of times.

While the tournament always demonstrates the incredible diversity among books, I think 2666 has done the most to demonstrate the range of differences among readers. Unless you’re in a reading group, most of us do our reading in isolation and I think it becomes easy to think that our individual opinion about a book is the definitive one and if someone differs, they’re either: A. Wrong, or B. Defective.

As is demonstrated in my first round comments on Netherland and 2666, I’m as prone to this attitude as anyone.

I’m pretty sure I detect this attitude in some of the pro-2666 pushback against our criticisms as well, like in this comment from the semis:
2666 is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It changed how I think of words and stories. It’s bigness and bagginess is a boon, not a flaw, thought (sic) the small-minded often miss that, as well as miss the ways the five parts connect.”
“Small-minded,” ouch! Hey, I voted for Obama too! I like salad with lettuce other than iceberg. I’ve even watched movies with subtitles!

My hat size is 7 3/4.

I don’t want to speak for all of 2666’s boosters, but it seems to me that there’s a strain running through the praise that suggests that one of the reasons people may respond to the book is that they enjoy “figuring it out,” that it is a sort of puzzle that Bolaño is inviting us to put together as best we can. That it defies order therefore becomes a virtue.

As another commenter said in that same semi-final round:
“What I love about 2666 is that I can’t get my hands around it. What I think distinguishes me from those who aren’t in love with it, is that I think it is worth continuing to grapple with. If it is a garrulous drunk at a bar, it is a drunk who knows something, if you can figure out what it is.”
It seems to me that this person’s reading experience is rooted in the question of “what does it mean?” or “what is this book trying to say?”

There’s still another comment in the previous round where one of our readers relates a friend’s thoughts on our commentary on 2666 where she said, “For my part I was bored by that ‘criticism’—a lot of yapping about the tediousness of 2666, and no critical ‘meat’ to speak of. Utterly uninteresting.” According to our commentator she went on to say of 2666, “This is a tour de force, this merciless hammering in cold outrage at the beastliness the world hardly acknowledges…Bolaño doesn’t look the other way. He rubs our faces in it. In my book he’d be great for doing that if he’d done nothing else…”

This “merciless hammering” is indeed what Bolaño has done. It is his meaning. I don’t think that I have any objections to that kind of thematic underpinning. In fact, I think it’s a fairly accurate representation of the most common themes of one of my favorite writers, Cormac McCarthy, but I couldn’t appreciate it in Bolaño because I was too busy being bored.

Put another way, I couldn’t hear the wisdom from the drunk at the bar because I couldn’t stop noticing how he was throwing up on his own shoes, and then my shoes. Now, perhaps it’s an open question as to whether this is a me problem or a book problem, or not a problem at all, but it seems like it’s the crux of the matter.

However, I think this commenter’s friend is a little unfair in saying that there’s no critical meat to our comments. In fact, your comment is full of critical meat, it’s just that the criticism deals with elements of the writerly craft, rather than the book’s content. This is an approach where the questions driving the experience are more like “what has he done?” and “how has he done that?” rather than “what does it mean?”

It’s not surprising you’d have this sort of reading bias, you’re a novelist, and you tend to read as a novelist does. I’m pretty much the same way, probably because I’ve spent too much time teaching creative writing, though I don’t have a critically and popularly acclaimed novel in my past to back me up. That Bolaño offers up a message from the darkest depths of humanity doesn’t matter to me because the book wasn’t crafted in a way that allows me to access it. I think maybe this helps explain how you and I ended up with a lot of similar takes throughout the tourney as well. It seems that as readers, we’re wired pretty similarly.

It’s also not surprising that, at a craft level, 2666 is pretty much a mess given that the author died before he could finish it and it may even be missing 1/6th of itself. In hindsight, this book probably didn’t have a chance with me. The books that I was personally most absorbed by—Unaccustomed Earth, The Dart League King, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Northern Clemency—all made me forget that I was reading a book. I also recognize now that during the reading experience, I didn’t give a shit about what any of these books might “mean,” I was just along for the ride.

It didn’t bother me that there’s a certain similarity to the characters and conflicts in the stories in Unaccustomed Earth, or that, in the words of another commentator, The Dart League King might be a “dude book for dudes,” or that Frankie Landau-Banks is 15 and the book is a genre that almost 39-year-old married men aren’t supposed to read. Those authors put me there, inside their stories. In contrast, 2666 never let me forget I was reading a book, and an “important” one no less.

I’m just that kind of reader and I think you are too. I think we may be in the minority on that, though, as many of our favorite titles were eliminated early and the peanut gallery has been pro-2666 throughout.

Oh my God. I just realized that I might be Billy Packer. Am I Billy Packer? Please don’t let me be Billy Packer.

Kevin: I agree completely about the commenters, who transformed this year’s tourney into a lively and illuminating conversation, and also about 2666, which I was kind of hoping would make it to the finals, as well. I think it would have been interesting to hear 17 opinions of it all at once, and especially 17 comparisons to another book that is in many ways its opposite—realist, accessible, quite easy to “get your hands around.” If the opaqueness of 2666 is one of its strengths, I think the transparency of City of Refuge is probably one of its weaknesses. I liked City of Refuge a great deal (and Piazza defeated Bolaño once), but I don’t know which way that final would have gone.

As for today’s match, I think Bolaño is trying to probe a little deeper, but nobody can teach Morrison anything about writing a novel, and A Mercy is so effective in part because she wasn’t tempted to bloat it to masterpiece length (or maybe I should say she had the luxury of honing it into the book she wanted it to be).

What Bolaño does well, he does very, very well. What he does poorly he does very, very poorly. As you say, when two people disagree about 2666, the dispute becomes not about Bolaño as much as the things the reader values. The readers who love it hardly notice the lack of cohesion, the plots that go nowhere, the absence of tension, the misogyny and homophobia, the sexual wish-fulfillment, the poor characterization. They focus instead on the occasional (but certainly real) transcendence of the prose, the raw and unsentimental window on humanity, the truly profound monologues on the nature of art, and (I guess) the experience of being “numbed” by endlessly repetitive descriptions of violence done to women, and the sensation of having their “face rubbed” in the “beastliness” of the world.

The people who don’t like it, vice-versa.

2666 is probably a novel that’s more about the experience of reading it, and this particular experience might defy description by either its supporters or its detractors. As a result you shouldn’t take anybody’s word for it, least of all mine. The only way to get a handle on this book is to open it up and start reading.

John: So, we have our finals, a #1 seed in A Mercy going up against #3 seeded underdog City of Refuge. This is pretty much our pattern every year, one Goliath and one David, and in all but the first year when David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas took the title from The Plot Against America in a pretty close contest, the Goliath has come out on top.

This is one of the rare occasions during the tourney when you and I don’t know what’s already happened in at least some of the future rounds as we write our commentaries, so we can make actual, untainted, predictions. If I had a vote in the finals, it would be for A Mercy as my esteem for it continues to grow with distance even as my good opinion of City of Refuge becomes ever fainter.

However, despite this personal preference, and even in the face of the fact that anyone who has judged A Mercy has praised it to the rafters, I’m going to go out on a limb and this time, predict a victory for David (City of Refuge) over Goliath (A Mercy).

Kevin: I really don’t know how to handicap the finals. Few writers can match Morrison on skills. As you and others point out, much of the appeal of City of Refuge comes from the fact that it’s based on real events. Katrina was something all of us remember vividly. But almost all of us watched it unfold on television and there is something enormously satisfying and moving about a novel’s ability to transport the reader into the lives of people who actually lived through the horror of it. Not even an excellent documentary on the subject can do that in the same way that fiction can. If this novel had been about a natural disaster that didn’t actually happen, would we be talking about it on the eve of the ToB finals? Maybe not. But I still think the emotion in the novel is earned, even if much of it originates in the memory of the reader. Piazza made some smart choices in telling this story and I think the result is extremely effective.

We haven’t disagreed much in this year’s tourney, but I’m going to take the other side of your bet. If I were a judge, I would probably vote for City of Refuge, but I’m going to predict the panel gives the Rooster to Morrison. This might be a reversal of something I said earlier, but I think the experience of reading these particular books back-to-back will favor A Mercy.

And if that happens Morrison will be a worthy champ.

Reader Comments

On March 30, 2009 at 8:59 AM B. Michael Payne said…

I am--I should say in the interest of commentator-honesty--only 20% through 2666. There are times when I wish that that rate were higher, but I am no literary masochist. I did not read more than 15 pages of JR, for instance. I have read Ulysses more than twice, though.

Bolano's final novel falls into a sort of trap that Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, et al. fall into: That is, as you said above, it reads like an Important Book. Or, rather, there's a widely-shared context--one that's nearly inescapable--in which 2666 is regarded as A) Important, and therefore B) Difficult. But we should remember that it is something of what you might say project for lots of people to read anything with a less punchy plot than US Weekly. Not that 2666 is comparable in many of ways (but in some ways it is), there are loads of sections of Ulysses or GR that make skim even the most fervent reader.

The novel's difficulty is unimportant to the larger discussion, I think. The threshold separating tedious from easy is a personal Maginot Line. I've read lots of peoples' thoughts on the impossibility of reading Ulysses (sorry to bang on that one, again), which thoughts I find absurd. But maybe they're not. It's personal, either way.

The hook of 2666 for me, obviously, is that it sets me on fire with ambition and wanderlust and all the sorts of adolescent feelings that I'd learned to suppress or redirect into more relatively harmless avenues (like writing comments to book tournaments). It has the effect--in a slightly diminutive if I may be allowed the redundancy--that the Savage Detectives had on me. That it's longer and less plotty than SD (a difficulty even for such a master!) is a critical MacGuffin (like the readymade allusion): It seems like a joke to me, like Joyce's words to the effect that he would keep the professors busy for centuries. Bolano seems to have written 2666 in such a way as to embody the idea of desire in the critics and academicians, while writing about experiences that are out of their ken in any visceral way, which, of course, is the joke. But the joke is only part of the novel's charm.

On March 30, 2009 at 10:46 AM chiles said…

'The readers who love it hardly notice the lack of cohesion, the plots that go nowhere, the absence of tension, the misogyny and homophobia, the sexual wish-fulfillment, the poor characterization.'

Having come from a couple '2666' reading groups, i don't think it would be off-base to say that it is untrue, or at least not necessarily true, that people who loved the book 'hardly notice' these things; rather, i'd say they read and respond to these things differently. Or, maybe, rather than 'hardly noticing', they actually *didn't see these things at all*, that is, maybe, just maybe, the book, instead of the specific qualities mentioned in the quote above, has more ambiguous qualities that may be interpreted by one set of readers as one thing, by another set of readers as another.

The lack of cohesion i found stimulating rather than off putting, and i felt actually added tension to the reading. The plots, though often aimless, never failed to sweep me along, and though they brought me nowhere and i was well-aware of it, i felt the journey was worth every word of it. i read an ethic behind 'the misogyny and homophobia [and] the sexual wish-fulfillment' that made these elements extremely funny but also, more importantly, very true of the outside world--which, like it or not, remains largely unenlightened when it comes to these issues--and therefore extremely tragic. The characters, by being only gestured at, came to life all the more vividly to my mind amidst the broad, thick strokes Bolaño used to paint the setting (in terms of craft, maybe it *is* poor characterization, but the effect for me was better than with 'good characterization' in a lot of other books).

And: Though it engaged and challenged me often, i never felt it was necessary to treat the book as a puzzle to enjoy it.

Finally: just to hammer in the point of emphasis here, i.e., the ultimate value of 'personal reading experience', much of what Womack said about his experience reading 'A Mercy' here could also be said of my personal reading experience reading '2666'. (i haven't read 'A Mercy'.)

Can't say i didn't expect this outcome, but i just wanted to throw in my final two cents as a way of saluting '2666' as it departs this tourney for good.

On March 30, 2009 at 1:28 PM Zach Soldenstern said…

I couldn't have said it better. The "lack of cohesion," "plots that go 'nowhere," thematically integral "misogyny and homophobia" and "sexual wish-fulfillment" were pretty much the constituent elements of the book's power and appeal, for me.

The characterization I'd call "strange," rather than "odd" - someone at N+1 wrote well about this. And I just basically didn't feel "the absence of tension." Rather, what I felt was a steadily accelerating tension, like a trap from the old Batman TV show, running from page 12 to page nine hundred whatever.


On March 30, 2009 at 2:08 PM John Warner said…

I was describing my reaction to 2666 to a friend, all the things about it that I didn't care for and after my rant he looked at me for awhile and said,

"So deep down, you're a modernist."

"Touche," was my only response.

This book had me for about fifty pages, but at some point, all the virtues that you guys see became vices for me and there was no going back. Part of me feels bad, like I'm missing out on something, but not matter what I try, I just can't see it when looking through my eyes.

On March 30, 2009 at 10:47 AM Stephen Dierks said…

the final is shaping up to be between a historical novel and a ripped-from-the-headlines Hurrican Katrina novel. are any of you interested in Literature?

On March 30, 2009 at 11:25 AM Cat said…

I'm curious to know, Stephen, which of the 16 books that originally entered the tournament you would qualify as 'Literature.' City of Refuge I can see trying to keep out of the club, mainly because of all the commentary about how it's almost non-fiction, but calling A Mercy 'a historical novel' and therefore implying that it doesn't qualify seems odd to me. Toni Morrison's won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so she's obviously been invited to join the capital-L club before, partially on the basis of historical novels.
Looking at the books that have won in the past years, we could certainly put them in categories that might leave them outside of the embrace of Literature: we have a work of speculative fiction (Cloud Atlas), a family drama/mystery (The Accidental), more speculative fiction (The Road), and a part-historical, part-modern biography that embraces pop culture in all its messy glory (Oscar Wao). I would argue that they all qualify as literature, and that Frankie Landau-Banks qualifies too, as does last year's 'genre' upstart, What the Dead Know.
Anyway I think the Tournament is more concerned with books and reading than it is with categorizing those things. It puts books into a sports-style tournament - there's a (welcome, to me) element of the lowbrow, and the pop-cult, to that. It allows us to look at books, and their various merits, in a different way, and in different categories, than we normally do.

On March 30, 2009 at 2:03 PM Les Miller said…

Stephen - You just point us to the panel of godlike dieties that meet in a secret room somewhere in space to determine what qualifies as "Literature" and what doesn't, and I guess we'll talk about who's interested in your idea of Literature.

On March 30, 2009 at 7:17 PM RM said…

Mrowr, Stephen.

On March 30, 2009 at 11:34 AM Alison said…

re: Stephen--
I hope you're joking with the capital-L Literature comment. I've not read City of Refuge yet and so I can't speak to it, but I can't believe you wouldn't consider "A Mercy" un-Literary simply because it takes place in the past. Morrison is this country's last Nobel winner, she is the closest to canonization of any contemporary writer (I would argue that she is already canonized), and regardless of how you personally feel about her work, I don't think anyone would argue that her books are not serious or worthy of extended consideration or a place in academia or whatever it is you mean by Literature. If you insist that "historical novels" are somehow lesser than what you consider Literature, you're missing out on a lot of great stuff.

On March 30, 2009 at 11:44 AM Richard Franco said…

Any novel, wheteher historical or not should be eligible for consideration for the tournament. I loved the six books in the tournament that I read. I had mentioned earlier in a comment that I would love to see a non-fiction tournament also. Great job!

On March 30, 2009 at 12:54 PM GM said…

What the hell is a "historical novel" in this context? Is it just a book that does not take place contemporaneously with the book's publication? If so, that would cover quite a few of the entries in this year's tournament.

On March 30, 2009 at 1:15 PM Drew Johnson said…

To pick perhaps my last bone of 2009 with Mr. Warner,

"It’s not surprising you’d have this sort of reading bias, you’re a novelist, and you tend to read as a novelist does."

I like to put out there the notion that, in the time since writers began speaking of reading as writers, the percentage of readers that were themselves writers has risen. Writers should, as best as they are able, read as readers.

City of Refuge, a book that has been kicked around even by the judges who advanced it, will be in the finals. 2666 will not.

I haven't read A Mercy. I will, although I don't expect to be surprised. Even a return to form wouldn't put Morrison past Bolano.

For all sorts of reasons, I've been riveted by the progress of the tournament--as I am every year. But tomorrow will be a dull day. Like Kevin, I would have really liked to see the reactions of all the judges to 2666. Oh, well.

Just because I think it's worth sharing, here's a line of literary judgment from an 18th century literary woman, Hester Thrale Piozzi, unknown to me until the other day. I like Piozzi's comment for what it says about what the novel can and should be--something both unrelenting and new:

Hester Thrale Piozzi commenting on William Godwin's novel, Fleetwood:

"A very neat key to the human heart, every dirty corner and Slut's Hole of which he seems to have great delight in opening."

A pre-modern blurb and high praise, too; I wonder if Fleetwood is any good?

On March 30, 2009 at 1:59 PM John Warner said…

"I like to put out there the notion that, in the time since writers began speaking of reading as writers, the percentage of readers that were themselves writers has risen. Writers should, as best as they are able, read as readers."

It's probably a lazy misstatement on my part to say I read like a writer. More accurately, after I'm done reading, I think about books like a writer, and in hindsight, I think I've always looked at books that way.

I cut a long exegesis on how my own reading has changed over the years from my comment because I'd gone on too long to begin with, but let me kind of paraphrase myself as a way of saying that reading like a writer IS reading like a reader, at least for me.

For me, the way I read has been in evidence since I learned how to read and long before I tried writing anything. I've always read indiscriminately and as a young adult was devoted to spy and detective novels. The thing I've always responded to as a reader is the ability to be transported into a deeply immersive experience. John Hodgman nails the sensation about as well as I could imagine in his judge's comment. I'm craving absorption, the sensation that I've forgotten that I'm reading a book.

I tend to think that's about as close to a definition of reading for readers as you can get.

As a reader, I've never been able to get engaged in questions of literary scholarship or "critical meat," if you will. I have a notebook from college I've always kept as a kind of talisman in which I have pages of rants written toward an American literature professor who spent some class periods explaining to us what The Great Gatsby "meant." Here's a quote from that notebook:

"Gah! Please shut up. You're ruining it! I thought I loved this book. Now I think it's dull. How is that possible?"

When I'd read it for class, I'd loved the book. It absorbed me completely, but that professor, rather than treating it as something living, spent his time embalming the thing, or maybe more accurately, chopping it into digestible bites.

For me, the experience of reading is a kind of on-off switch. Either I am absorbed or I am not. If I am absorbed then I'm literally not doing anything other than experiencing the text. If I am not, then the process begins to break down and all I can begin to see is the artifice of the text. I suppose this is when the writer self begins to kick in, but it's an ex post facto effort in order to try to understand why I wasn't absorbed. Before I studied writing, I didn't really have any way of processing that lack of absorption, now I do, but that hasn't really changed the way I respond to books, or even in many cases, the type of book I respond to.

(The one area my tastes have changed the most is that I've become much more snobby about the quality of prose. I have a personal threshold my brain will not let me cross which is why I've never read the DaVinci Code.)

This is why I say that questions of "meaning" have always struck me as strange. I honestly don't care what a book has to say as long as it says it well. This is not to say that I think all meanings are created equal or that I simply agree with what a book says, just that it isn't relevant to my experience of reading while I'm reading. I always figured my way of reading was closer to the average person's than the theme and symbol hunting of my college professors, but maybe I'm kidding myself.

On April 6, 2009 at 2:53 AM Alyssa said…

There's a great paragraph to this effect in Margaret Atwood's Survival:

"I wasn't discriminating in my reading, and I'm still not. I read then primarily to be entertained, as I do now. And I'm not saying that apologetically: I feel that if you remove the initial gut response from reading--the delight or excitement or simply the enjoyment of being told a story--and try to concentrate on the meaning or the shape or the "message" first, you might as well give up, it's too much like all work and no play."

On March 30, 2009 at 1:21 PM Kevin Guilfoile said…

Chiles, my "readers who love it hardly notice" comment was meant to cut both ways--I wanted to suggest that my criticism of the book ignores the parts of 2666 that are successful--but I see now that it came across as flippant. I've tried to keep the commentary entertaining, but that crossed the line into being dismissive, which is something I definitely didn't want to do. You were right to call me on it and eloquent in your response. Thank you. And you as well Michael.

In fact, thanks to everyone who followed this year's tourney and especially to everyone who has participated in the comments. I'll have more to say on the subject tomorrow, but you've all added a wonderful new dimension to the ToB.

On March 30, 2009 at 1:23 PM Kevin Guilfoile said…

Oh, and because our comments crossed there, thanks to you too Drew.

On March 30, 2009 at 1:32 PM Jack W said…

I have to salute Stephen Dierks for succinctly epitomizing literary snobbism with his remarks. And thereby setting aflame the commentary which has ensued.

It made me laugh. Anybody making a stand for capital L Literature nowadays will come under fire, usually heavy fire. And if you also make such remarks while trashing the work of other people, dismissing one as a dirty-G genre piece, and the other as too topical... Well, you're asking for it.

The tournament has been lots of fun this year. It seemed like the judging in the early rounds in nearly every case went the wrong way. But this spurred me to read the authors who were so grievously dismissed. Then the last couple of rounds the judging has been cogent and respectful, and its outcomes just. Or so I suspect.

I've now found and read some of at least a half-dozen or so of this year's books. That I felt impelled to find these books, proved to me the tournament's worth.

I finished "White Tiger" -- and heartily enjoyed it; several chapters in, I'm finding "Lazarus Project" very engaging. Additionally, the chapter of "Dark League King" sampled free online proved highly appetizing.

As for today, I was prepared to be upset and outraged had 2666 won. Now that it's lost, there's at least a chance that I'll seek it out. I'll do so reluctantly, but perhaps I'll be surprised.

Now that Morrison's work has reached the finals, I'm sure to read it as well -- and I might not otherwise have done so. I'm almost astounded to see Piazza's novel continue to advance. While its historical import and accuracy have been praised, its success as a fictional work got challenged again and again -- and yet it kept winning. Just how good or bad is it? I have to know.

Thanks, ToB. I await reading the final words of all the judges with great pleasure and don't really care who ultimately wins. Watching the battle; that's what's best.

On March 30, 2009 at 2:19 PM Stephen Dierks said…

i was kidding. that being said, i wish 2666 would have made it to the final round.

On March 30, 2009 at 4:20 PM Edward said…

Having these two books in the finals makes it look like a dreadful year for publishing. All the interesting books fall by the wayside in favor of the safe bets, the "big" topics, the overplayed hands. It will be hard to even be bothered to read the final round commentary.

Previous winners (Oscar Wao, The Road, Cloud Atlas) have all been so alive and creative and daring that I'm disappointed to know that this year's winner will be a book aimed directly at the center of the board. Both are workmanlike in their quality and execution but lack the dizzying, captivating, discomfiting energy of newness.

On March 31, 2009 at 1:15 PM meave said…

Cloud Atlas was one of the best recommendations the ToB ever gave, and I hate whimsy.

On March 30, 2009 at 5:41 PM James said…

There's still a chance for 2666--jury nullification.

On March 30, 2009 at 6:44 PM Ryan said…

What's most interesting to me about the ToB is hearing how we're different as readers - it's about as different as religion, really. When judges praise prose over plot, or concision over scope, they're essentially making arbitrary choices that appear to me insane, as I defend my own arbitrary choices. I'm peeved 2666 didn't make it into the finals, but I'm thankful at least today's battle was between two world-class novelists. How often does that happen?

On March 30, 2009 at 8:38 PM matt said…

I was pretty bummed that The Savage Detectives didn't win, but, man, am I pissed that 2666 isn't even in the finals!