Thursday, February 12, 2015

Fifty Shades Darker- A (very belated) Review

(Warning: spoilers, slight NSFW-ness, and extreme snarkiness ahead. All those easily offended, abandon ship now). 

*Sigh* Yes, I am still reviewing this shit. Since it's actually been quite a while since I gave this book a complete read-through I really should've reviewed it a long time ago, but despite having all these thoughts festering inside me I couldn't muster the energy to just write it all down. So basically the only reason this is finally getting done is because the movie will be out this weekend and I have this weird sense of duty to review the rest of the books before then. I'm starting to get the sense that this trilogy is becoming to me what the Star Wars Prequels are to Mr. Plinkett/Red Letter Media; I have a duty to the world to explain in-depth why these books (and pretty soon the movie) are so awful, even if it's a couple years too late.

I know that I have made many a self-deprecating joke in the past about being an "emotional masochist", but it's moments like these when I wonder if I really am way more masochistic than I claim to be. It's true that I do kind of get off on my hatred get kind of a weird pleasure out of how bad these books are, but Fifty Shades Darker, perhaps more so than its predecessor, is one of those epically bad books that really rides the line between entertaining and infuriating. If I could sum it up in one word, I think you can guess what it would be.


But I owe you a lot more than that. As with the last one, though, it's hard to know where to start. All of the problems present in Fifty Shades of Grey are still here, but about 50 times worse (Ha, I made a "fifty" joke just like Ana does on every other page! Get it? YA GET IT? LAUGH, DAMMIT.) and with very little improvement in any department. The writing is still bad, the characters are even worse, the melodrama is still insufferable, the abuse is still abusive, the sex is still atrocious, the themes are somehow even more offensive, and logic continues to be shredded into tiny pieces. With this one, E.L. James already knew she'd somehow already hooked an audience of adoring Twilight Moms, and so all she did was toss all those "stylistic" elements into a blender and crank it up to fifty (FIFTY. GET IT? LAUGH, SHEEPLE.). But since I am just oh-so dedicated to ripping this thing apart, I guess I'll have to do my best to disassemble the horribleness. 

*starts crying*
1.) E.L. James: An Editor's Worst Nightmare- So I guess I should probably just talk about the writing now and get that shit out of the way so I can properly concentrate on all the other crap that's wrong with this book, because the writing is truly so awful that it manages to be distracting even when I'm not reading it. Unbelievably, the writing seems to have gotten worse over time, with more improperly used "murmurs" and "whispers" than you'll ever hear in an entire lifetime of conversations. Confusing, nonsensical metaphors and similes such as "desire explodes like the Fourth of July" crop up so frequently that it sounds like the disorganized speech of a schizophrenic. I mean really, how the hell does Ana's/James' brain make these ludicrous connections? 

Speaking of brains (not) working, Ana's imaginary shitty friends, her Id Inner Goddess and Superego Subconscious have teamed up once again in their quest to suck all the joy out of reading for me.

Fifty Shades Darker also provides further evidence that E.L. James graduated from the George Lucas Academy of Dialogue Writing. Giving us such gems as:

 “We’ve chased the dawn, Anastasia, now the dusk"

“Testosterone rush?” His lips twitch. “Yes. The pissing contest.” “I’ll show you a testosterone rush.” “Wouldn’t you rather have a cup of tea?” “No, Anastasia, I wouldn’t.”

“See! I tell you he like it,” Franco enthuses. “You look lovely, Ana,” Christian says appreciatively. “My work ’ere is done,” Franco exclaims. [...] “Never let anyone else be cutting your hair, bellissima Ana!”

And of course this shit:

 “But I’m a selfish man. I’ve wanted you since you fell into my office. You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent; the list is endless. I’m in awe of you. I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.”

And you thought *this* was bad dialogue. Also, can you believe a GIF of this doesn't exist anywhere on the internet?

And of course, the deliciously sexy, completely irresistible, totally unforgettable:

“Put the chicken in the fridge.” This is not a sentence I had ever expected to hear from Christian Grey, and only he can make it sound hot, really hot.

Hey, I said she graduated, not that she passed with flying colors. Seriously, not even George Lucas could make this shit up.

By this point you could also tell that even the author was getting tired of the sex, because pretty much every sex scene in this book is the same exact fucking thing. Considering this is supposed to be an "erotic" novel it's not like I mind the sex being excessive--and believe me, it was excessive compared to the last one--but it's all just so goddamn boring it was kind of hard to believe. At the very least you could mine some cringe-comedy from most of the sex scenes in FSOG, but here I found myself simply skimming through or entirely skipping a lot of them. Which is a very baffling experience considering that popular opinion is that most people who read erotica are more likely to skim everything  else and skip right to the sex. So if the sex itself isn't even worth reading then what's the fucking point? Oh, wait, the "love" story, I guess...

2.) God, Ana, You're So Stupid!- Ana is dumb. The first book already established this quite clearly, but by this point in the story she's starting to sound like a parody of herself. The girl gets fucking flabbergasted by *gasp* a change in conversation, and this happens on multiple occasions. She seems to stumble through life in a near-constant state of confusion and obliviousness. So, a large part of the wafer-thin plot of the novel is that Ana's creepy new boss, Jack, is a creepy creeper who creeps on her and quite obviously is waiting for his chance to molest her. Ana herself even comments on how uncomfortable he makes her feel in pretty much every scene they share together... and yet she STILL cannot grasp that he totally wants to bone her and is totally being inappropriate right up until the moment he's actually about to RAPE HER, and even then he still has to spell it all out for her.

Her complete lack of understanding of basic human interaction is taken to new heights when she finds Leila, Christian's crazy ex-sub, standing in her apartment with a gun. Christian runs in to use his Domly Dom skills to defuse the situation in a surprisingly reasonable way, so naturally Ana's reaction to this is to flip the fuck out and automatically assume that the look of pity/concern he's giving Leila is one of love, and that he's now totally going to leave her for the crazy lady whose been trying to kill one or both of them this whole time!!! 

No words. I have no more words. I just can't right now. Can we just move on to talk about E.L. James' idiocy instead?

3.) Because Fuck Logic, That's Why- It's clear from Fifty Shades Darker that James' already tenuous grasp on reality is pretty much nonexistent at this point. The first book was already crippled by a series of implausible scenarios, but now she's just blatantly making shit up. Need to hammer home the point that the heroine is so helpless and lost without the hero that she needs him to remind her to eat? Why, just simply have her mysteriously lose "at least five pounds" in the FIVE DAYS since they broke up! Need to create drama and suspense in the last act but can't bear to not have it be resolved in more than three pages? Easy, just have Christian's helicopter crash so that he can be lost for eight whole hours while search parties are called in and his disappearance is broadcast on the national news... even though in reality a search wouldn't even begin in less than 24 hours so as to prevent the exact type of panic that happens in this fucking book. Need to create relationship tension while also putting the happy couple in danger because reasons? Simple, just have the crazy woman who just attempted suicide a week ago and checked herself out of the mental hospital be able to get a concealed weapons permit and buy a gun in a matter of days, no questions asked! Silly Americans and their crazy gun obsession, this is totally allowed to happen!

 “She managed to obtain a concealed weapons permit yesterday.” [...] “That means she can just buy a gun,” I whisper.


And of course we can't forget the time when after her boss was suddenly fired, the recent college grad who's been working there for a week gets (temporarily, but then permanently) promoted to her old boss' position.The brilliant narrative does have a justification for this laughably improbable turn of events, which is basically that they haven't had time to find a replacement yet, Ana is already familiar with Jack's authors (in a delectable bit of meta-irony, the eeeevil Jack is an editor for a publishing house. Is this a "take that" at all those meany-heads who didn't appreciate your writing talents, James?), and Jack had always been a "champion of her abilities". So, normal, real-world logic would dictate that to fill the temporary void left by Jack, the other editors in the office would probably take on his authors/manuscripts until a replacement was hired. Ana would probably take on some extra responsibilities, true, but there's no goddamn reason why she'd actually be given his literal job! I'm almost 100% certain that this is the author's way of trying to prove to us that Ana isn't dumb (little too late for that, I'm afraid) and that she's totes capable of being a strong, independent woman who don't need no man (even though James seems to subvert this notion at every turn? You know what, forget what I said, I'm not 100% certain of anything anymore. This is just dumb).

Then again, this epic bit of stupidity competes for the title of "Least Likely Thing to Happen Ever But Shoved into a Romance Novel for Convenience" with the Dr. Flynn plot line.Towards the end of the novel, after all the other major drama has already been resolved and E.L. James is desperately grasping at straws for ways in which to conveniently excuse Christian's Kinky Sex Illness hideous behavior, apparently the best way in which to come to terms with your boyfriend's psychological baggage is to simply talk to his therapist about it. Because of course there's nothing at all ethically wrong with that and a therapist is totally going to be okay with waiving aside confidentiality, because hey, true love!

4.)Plot? What Plot?- So the thing with novels is that they tend to have a plot, so I guess we should talk about that shit. Only problem is, there really isn't much of one. I was almost tempted to roll this in with my point about the shitty writing--because it is a writing issue--but really it's such a big issue that encompasses the entire narrative structure that it ends up being a way larger problem than simple bad word choice or dialogue. The fundamental issue here is that E.L. James has by this point realized that she can get away with shitty writing so long as there's enough story to keep a reader engaged, but hasn't learned that it takes more than stringing together a series of scenes to make a story.

You may not notice it until you read the third book, but there's a definite trend in the 50 Shades series of gradual plot degradation. To its credit (and I can't believe I'm mentioning it as a positive example), Fifty Shades of Grey at least had a mostly clear plot, with a progression from beginning (they meet, they learn things about each other, they begin a relationship), to middle (they encounter road bumps in their relationship and make decisions regarding them), to end (things don't end up working out, there's a sort-of climax and they break up). And while it did stall a couple times, there was obvious rising action that did build up to a climactic make-it-or-break-it moment before some rushed falling action. But with Fifty Shades Darker the narrative arc is a lot more muddied and unclear; it lacks the easy-to-follow narrative structure of the first one and instead opts for a series of minor conflicts that are clumsily woven into the narrative and that all climax and are then resolved long before the book is even over.

Now to THIS book's credit, it does indeed have more story to it than Fifty Shades Freed, but like I mentioned it marks the transitional point in the trilogy where E.L. James had somewhat of an idea of where she was going with the story, to a point where she's just making shit up as she goes along and struggling to maintain any sort of momentum. The plot meanders all over the place and we're forced to endure repetitive scenes of the same fight, the same sex, and the same declarations of love over and over again until James finally remembers that there was some kind of conflict that was supposed to be driving the plot along and then shoves in a climax where it gets resolved quickly so that they can then move onto the next minor crisis. I think it's this book, more so than the first, that really shows 50 Shades' fan fiction roots, because it suffers from the same kind of aimlessness that a lot of long-running fics do, particularly ones that focus on a romance between two characters. E.L. James is one of those fan fic authors who eventually becomes so obsessed with her own OTP and so tired of having to focus on anything outside of their love for the sake of plot structure that all other characters and subplots are shoved to the wayside to make room for easily-resolvable relationship drama. Because that's what the fans really want, right? By this point in the story the author already has hundreds of adoring readers, and the whole thing basically just becomes an ego trip in which the author feels that to please the fans all they need to do is jerk it to their own awesomeness and ejaculate a sloppily written series of events onto the page.

Now, I'm not saying that all fan fic writers are like this (and just to show I'm not biased, I admit that I've written fan fiction myself and have been guilty of many common fan fiction sins), nor am I saying that this kind of thing never occurs in original fiction. And it's not just restricted to romance story lines, either. It's quite common for a great work to encounter "seasonal rot" and go through a period of the writer(s) BS-ing their way through the story (season six of Mad Men, the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica), or for a once-praised series to fall apart from a combination of inflated ego and misunderstanding of what the audience enjoys. The problem with 50 Shades (besides being terrible to begin with) is that despite being only three books long, the series has already jumped the shark less than halfway through the second book. The "naive, innocent virgin meets experienced rich dude and gets coerced into his kinky lifestyle" gimmick is already played out by this point; knowing that she has no foundation to build off of besides this, James endlessly rehashes this point throughout the sequel, turning this into a series of arguments and "woe is me" moments for the main characters that never truly get resolved. By the end of it all there's only a mere semblance that any substantial change has occurred, when really the book just went in one big circle with a sudden (and yet still totally predictable) detour into "let's solve all our issues by getting married!" at the end.

So what exactly is the story, then? What is the point of this novel even existing? Well, basically the entire narrative pivots on the same exact central question as the first book: Can Ana and Christian have a happy relationship? And since the adversity they face from each other apparently isn't enough, the author has to throw some other crap at them too, I guess, because it's not true love if you haven't encountered stalkers, rapists, and crazy/evil exes together. So we start out three whole days after the breakup, and Ana is finishing her first day at work, where she has a creepy new boss.

His name is Jack Hyde, and the fact that he's totes a bad guy couldn't be more obvious if his middle initial was "L". Ana repeatedly tells the reader how sorry she feels for herself for something like ten pages, and just when you're reaching the point where it's already so boring that you can't take any more, E.L. James gives us the most contrived excuse for a couple getting back together ever; Ana had plans to go with Christian to Jose's art show, and is easily manipulated into seeing him again because how else is she going to get there but via helicopter? So after a tense and uncomfortable art show and dinner-date scene they're back together after five days, and so the rest of the novel can proceed as you'd expect. Just as with the last one, there's a lot of moments like this:

And then some of this:

Instead of actually solving their problems. Christian acts like a dick to Ana, they have sex, then she goes to get a haircut, but oh noes, Christian's child molester ex-Domme owns the place! So then she gets upset, he acts like a dick, she finds out he's got ANOTHER crazy ex trying to kill him, then they have sex, then they go to a party, then they have sex again, then crazypants breaks in and is all like:

So then they go to a hotel and have sex again, and for some reason Christian doesn't call the police. Then they say they love each other. Then they have sex on a boat. Then they come home and have sex again. Then he acts like a dick and they fight, have some more sex or whatever, say they love each other, they crazypants comes back and now she's got a GUN, and oh noes, is Christian still in love with his ex-sub?!??1?!?!!1!

But of course not, but who cares, drama! Then he gets all over dramatic, and admits to Ana that he's messed up in the head and likes to "whip little brown-haired girls like you because you all remind me of the crack whore, my mother". 

But then he ask Ana to marry him to make sure she won't ever leave him again! In a shocking plot twist, Ana says she has to think about it, but then MOAR DRAMA!!! Out of fucking nowhere because we totally didn't see this coming, Jack tries to molest Ana! And then some more shit happens, they fight some more, they have sex some more, some bullshit about Christian's helicopter crashing, then they agreed to get married and the story is somehow STILL going at this point...

The end result is that I was frustrated that having the kindle edition prevented me from hurling this book across the room. Despite all the melodrama this book managed to be boring beyond belief, and even the bad writing was barely ridiculous enough to enjoy in cringey way. It's just pointless and so damn boring...

5.)The Death of Romance- Romance is dead, and E.L. James murdered it with a pickaxe to the head. After I read the first one I still managed to retain my faith in the human capacity for beautiful, meaningful, true love, but with each page I turned of this book I could feel my heart shriveling up a little bit more. I'm aware that romance novels have a reputation for crazy melodrama, but when a novel starts out like this (two pages into the first chapter): 
"AND SO A PATTERN develops: wake, work, cry , sleep. Well, try to sleep. I can’t even escape him in my dreams. Gray burning eyes, his lost look, his hair burnished and bright all haunt me. And the music … so much music— I cannot bear to hear any music."
You know it's going to be bad. I'd thought the melodrama was bad in the first book, but I wasn't prepared for the outrageous levels it reaches in this one.  YOU'VE BEEN BROKEN UP FOR THREE DAYS, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE. Look, I've been through a shitty breakup before that left me depressed for months, but that was after it had some time to sink in, you know. And it's not like I was incapable of functioning or even eating--seriously, she makes a minor plot point out of the fact that Ana has barely eaten for four days and apparently has visibly lost weight, even though that's pretty ridiculous--the way she is. And yes, I get that different people handle things differently, but come on, they barely shared a meaningful emotional connection to begin with in the month that they knew each other.

I get what James is trying to do here: enforcing the notion that True Love is all about extremes of emotion. Because if two characters are ultra-depressed to the point of barely functioning and behaving as though they can't survive without each other after not seeing each other for mere days after only having just met then it MUST mean that they're soulmates and obviously they're meant for each other, right? CODEPENDENCY IS THE DEFINITION OF LOVE, DAMMIT.

Another thing I hate about this is the fact that Ana's inability to eat--and Christian's subsequent anger about it--marks the beginning in a disturbing new trend that will crop up repeatedly throughout the rest of the trilogy: a trend of "justifying" Christian's controlling, abusive behavior by having Ana either be in perpetual danger or simply unable to take care of herself. So not only does E.L. James have the "classic" abuse excuse of a tragic backstory, she now also has another powerful tool with which to romanticize his abusive actions.

The very first thing he does when he sees her at the start of the novel is angrily interrogate her about eating, and despite the fact that Ana herself muses about how invasive and controlling this is it's obvious that we the readers are meant to side with him on this. Christian is allowed to control what and when she eats because she's too stupid/fragile/helpless to do so otherwise. Christian is justified in controlling where, when, and who she goes out with because there's a crazy person on the lose (even though if he'd just called the cops in the first place Leila might be much less of a problem). He's allowed to make a fuss when she "defies" him because she's obviously too silly to understand that he does what he does for her own good. He's justified in invading her privacy because he "doesn't misuse the information" (which he totally does) and he needs it for "control", which no other sub ever complained about. It's totally cool that he railroads her into decisions and then distracts her from the issue with sex, because he doesn't know any other way and hey, she likes the sex, right? There's nothing wrong at all with him keeping important information from Ana because it's just for her own protection (somehow). He has a flawless excuse for being angry with her for almost being assaulted by her boss because she was too stupid to not use her work email for incriminating personal correspondence. He's allowed to humiliate her and treat her like a child in public because she got a bit uppity over a valid list of complaints. There's nothing at all wrong with him controlling her birth control decisions because she obviously can't handle the responsibility herself. And of course he's completely justified in belittling her for not using her safeword in an extremely intense and upsetting situation where forgetting such things is actually quite understandable.

6.)Bondage is Bad, and Other Pseudo-Freudian Bullshit- Remember how I said in my FSOG review that everyone and their mother had already covered just how offensive and awful E.L. James' portrayal of BDSM is? Well, here's the part where you finally get my take on it. I didn't feel a need to talk about it before because plenty of other people really did already have it covered, but I think there's a lot that's gone unsaid about this book simply because fewer people have read it. Most of those who were offended by the first one had the good sense not to stick around, leaving the true masochists poor saps like me to pick up where they left off.

Anyone who's read the first book should remember that the central conflict came from a tense romance between a kinky person and a "normal" person... or at least that seems to be what the author sincerely believes. It's pretty clear from how she writes about it that BDSM isn't something that E.L. James is into, but that she has a bizarre and hypocritical fascination with it that's not quite arousal and not quite complete disgust. And I know there will be those who will rush to her defense claiming that she never claims that there's anything bad or wrong about kink in her books and that they actually go a long way towards making it mainstream, but just judging from interviews it appears that she unfortunately does have a rather disdainful opinion of the BDSM community in real life, and this attitude translates into the tone of the books and the general attitude of its characters. She seems to view kinksters--particularly Doms--as some sort of exotic and intriguing, yet fucked-up and slightly dangerous "other" lurking in the shadows of "normal" society.

So how do I even begin to describe just how badly she fucked up? For starters, we have the naive Ana, who finds herself being coerced into (in the first book, at least) a sexual lifestyle that she knows nothing about and is in fact kind of afraid of by an experienced Dom who should really know better. She describes his sexual interests as "dark" and even "disturbing" at one point, and clearly thinks that something is wrong with him and that something bad that happened in his past must have caused this. Christian himself even seems to agree with her, and the overarching theme of the story becomes Ana's quest to change him/rescue him from his need for kinky sex, while at the same time also having kinky sex.

Throughout the first book it's pretty clear that she doesn't like it, but in the second one now she... kind of does? I still don't understand how it happened; it's like E.L. James' idea of how people become kinky is that after being forced to endure it for some time, a switch goes off in the brains and now all of a sudden they want it. At least it's consistent with the age-old stereotype that kinksters must've been sexually abused in the past. But seriously, a HUGE theme in FSOG was how much Ana dreaded being spanked, but all of a sudden in the sequel it's the thing that she's explicitly ok with? And she never really craved submission, or understood power exchange, and though punishment was super creepy, and thought bondage was weird but still kind of liked it... in fact, bondage is really the only thing she enjoyed, but it's given kind of a weird treatment considering James seems to think that BDSM is an all-or-nothing deal, so obviously the bondage has to come with everything else. That, or James simply doesn't give a shit about character consistency.

This entire review was just an excuse for an "Obi-Wan in handcuffs" GIF
On her quest to save her one true love from the evils of sadomasochism, Ana has an encounter with his therapist, who spouts off a lot of outdated Freudian bullshit that I read as James' attempt to backtrack the entire last 1.75 books, but really does little to dissuade readers or the characters from the notion that Christian being kinky and Christian being "fucked up" are connected. She pays a lot of lip service to BDSM being normal and acceptable, but this comes way late into the novel and the perception of it that she has carefully constructed both before and after the fact still portrays it as subversive and "dark", and is ultimately still something that the tragically damaged hero needs rescuing from. It's only when he no longer "needs" it that it suddenly becomes ok, and even then James still struggles with portraying it as something that is not mutually exclusive from a "normal" (vanilla) loving relationship between equals. Moreover, despite what the author would trick us into believing with this 11th hour "revelation", Christian's "fucked-upness" in the context of the story is literally impossible to distance from his sexuality, since James goes to great lengths to repeatedly demonstrate that his controlling, creepy, abusive behavior extends to all aspects of his life and is fundamentally tied to both his sex life AND the traumatic childhood that is the apparent "cause" of both.


*Deep breath* But wait, there's more! It becomes apparent by this book that nobody puts the DSM in BDSM quite like E.L. James. Seriously, every single one of the few characters who've had kinky sex has something psychologically wrong with them, and in most cases it's possibly diagnosable. Let's go down the list, shall we?

Christian- A classic Narcissist (the personality disorder). Arrogant, big ego, everything is all about him, impatient, low empathy, feelings of entitlement, inflated yet incredibly fragile self-esteem, which hides a deep sense of self-loathing. Has enough symptoms to be diagnosable. Has some anger issues he often doesn't bother to reign in. Paranoid, but not delusionally so. Exhibits a few symptoms for Borderline Personality Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (different than OCD), not enough for diagnosis. Exhibits symptoms of PTSD associated with childhood trauma. Appears to be resistant to psychotherapy/counseling, or even opening up about problems to others. Also a textbook example of the age-old BDSM stereotype of having been abused as a child AND sexually molested as a teen. Also described by his therapist as being an "emotional teenager".

Leila (the crazy ex-sub)- Described by Christian as having had a "psychotic break", which could mean any number of things. Hard to tell exactly from her brief appearance, but she may be showing symptoms consistent with Schizophrenia, which may suggest this "break" is Schizoaffective Disorder or Brief Psychotic Disorder, or that she suffers from a mood disorder (Major Depression or Bipolar) with psychotic symptoms. If mood disorder with psychotic symptoms is ruled out, her actions might also suggest Borderline Personality Disorder: series of unstable relationships (although it's difficult to establish this for certain), emotional instability, possibly unstable sense of self, impulsiveness, and self-harm, which could have either been manipulative in nature, an impulsive act, or a genuine attempt at suicide. Also potentially diagnosable with Dependent Personality Disorder.

Elena Lincoln/"Mrs. Robinson"- An ephebophile and child molester, though she doesn't see herself as being in the wrong. Also symptomatic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Seems to be delusional as well in regards to Christian, though this doesn't appear to be consistent with any potential diagnosis. Also somewhat fits the abuse-->kink stereotype as she was physically abused by her ex-husband.

Ana- Not a straight example since she makes ever effort to distance herself from "those" kind of people, but she still technically counts. Extremely shy, socially awkward, self-deprecating, puts her love interest on a high pedestal above her, can't see why anyone would like her, has never had a boyfriend and has few friendships, and generally has rock-bottom low self-esteem. Exhibits nearly every symptom of Avoidant Personality Disorder. Some readers have suggested that she has an eating disorder, but I disagree, although she does seem to have issues with eating tied to anxiety. Tends to psychologically distance herself from decisions and even her own feelings through her "Subconscious" and "Inner Goddess".

Fuck you, E.L. James.

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