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Author Jennifer Egan

Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan on time, memory, and her latest, “A Visit from the Goon Squad.”

Jennifer Egan, seen here on the office of her home in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel "A Visit from the Goon Squad," honored for its "big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed," Monday, Apr. 18, 2011, in New York. (AP)

Jennifer Egan, seen here on the office of her home in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel "A Visit from the Goon Squad," honored for its "big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed," Monday, Apr. 18, 2011, in New York. (AP)

Jennifer Egan wrote “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” won the Pulitzer Prize, and captured something core about a rising generation’s sense of time. She writes “time is a goon” – as in an irresistible force. Her inspirations were Proust and The Sopranos.

But her sense of how time is sliced and diced and denoted in the age of text and tweet and Facebook has stuck a chord. Time may be the boss, the goon, but our relationship with it can change from age to age. And we’re in a new one.

This hour On Point: novelist Jennifer Egan and “A Visit From the Goon Squad.”

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Jennifer Egan, prize-winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad.

From Tom’s Reading List

Slate “Author Jennifer Egan is intrigued by the notion of pseudo-reality, and that theme permeates her fiction.”

The Guardian “Growing up is hard to do, but some rites of passage are tougher than others. Try being a model whose lovely face is destroyed in a car crash. Try being the one flat-chest among bosomy schoolpals who trade lip gloss and jocks. So we meet the two Charlottes of Look at Me, aged 35 and 16, at their distinct existential crises of first love and individuation and their shared one of not being beautiful.”

ABC News “Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan and “Lemony Snicket’s” Daniel Handler are just a few of the writers who have added their names to an ever-growing list of authors throwing their support — and their talents — behind Occupy Wall Street with an online petition.”

Playlist

“Time Won’t Let Me” by Iggy Pop

“Bernadette” by The Four Tops

“Goon Squad” by Elvis Costello and The Attractions

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Found Objects

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag

on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman

whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vaultlike door of a toilet stall. Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman’s blind trust had provoked her: We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson. But this wish only camouflaged the deeper feeling Sasha always had: that at, tender wallet, offering itself to her hand-it seemed so dull, so life-as-usual to just leave it there rather than seize the moment, accept the challenge, take the leap, fly the coop, throw caution to the wind, live dangerously (“I get it,” Coz, her therapist, said), and take the [Expletive deleted] thing.

“You mean steal it.”

He was trying to get Sasha to use that word, which was harder to avoid in the case of a wallet than with a lot of the things she’d lifted over the past year, when her condition (as Coz referred to it) had begun to accelerate: five sets of keys, fourteen pairs of sunglasses, a child’s striped scarf, binoculars, a cheese grater, a pocketknife, twenty-eight bars of soap, and eighty-five pens, ranging from cheap ballpoints she’d used to sign debit-card slips to the aubergine Visconti that cost two hundred sixty dollars online, which she’d lifted from her former boss’s lawyer during a contracts meeting. Sasha no longer took anything from stores-their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her. Only from people.

“Okay,” she said. “Steal it.”

Sasha and Coz had dubbed that feeling she got the “personal challenge,” as in: taking the wallet was a way for Sasha to assert her toughness, her individuality. What they needed to do was switch things around in her head so that the challenge became not taking the wallet but leaving it. That would be the cure, although Coz never used words like “cure.” He wore funky sweaters and let her call him Coz, but he was old school inscrutable, to the point where Sasha couldn’t tell if he was gay or straight, if he’d written famous books, or if (as she sometimes suspected) he was one of those escaped cons who impersonate surgeons and wind

up leaving their operating tools inside people’s skulls. Of course, these questions could have been resolved on Google in less than a minute, but they were useful questions (according to Coz), and so far, Sasha had resisted.

The couch where she lay in his office was blue leather and very soft. Coz liked the couch, he’d told her, because it relieved them both of the burden of eye contact. “You don’t like eye contact?” Sasha had asked. It seemed like a weird thing for a therapist to admit.

“I find it tiring,” he’d said. “This way, we can both look where we want.”

“Where will you look?”

He smiled. “You can see my options.”

“Where do you usually look? When people are on the couch.”

“Around the room,” Coz said. “At the ceiling. Into space.”

“Do you ever sleep?”

“No.”

Sasha usually looked at the window, which faced the street, and tonight, as she continued her story, was rippled with rain. She’d glimpsed the wallet, tender and overripe as a peach. She’d plucked it from the woman’s bag and slipped it into her own small handbag, which she’d zipped shut before the sound of peeing had stopped. She’d flicked open the bathroom door and floated back through the lobby to the bar. She and the wallet’s owner had never seen each other.

Prewallet, Sasha had been in the grip of a dire evening: lame date (yet another) brooding behind dark bangs, sometimes glancing at the flat-screen TV, where a Jets game seemed to interest him more than Sasha’s admittedly overhandled tales of Bennie Salazar, her old boss, who was famous for founding the Sow’s Ear record label and who also (Sasha happened to know) sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee-as an aphrodisiac, she suspected-and sprayed pesticide in his armpits.

Postwallet, however, the scene tingled with mirthful possibility. Sasha felt the waiters eyeing her as she sidled back to the table holding her handbag with its secret weight. She sat down and took a sip of her Melon Madness Martini and cocked her head at Alex. She smiled her yes/no smile. “Hello,” she said.

The yes/no smile was amazingly effective.

“You’re happy,” Alex said.

“I’m always happy,” Sasha said. “Sometimes I just forget.”

Alex had paid the bill while she was in the bathroom-clear proof that he’d been on the verge of aborting their date. Now he studied her. “You feel like going somewhere else?”

They stood. Alex wore black cords and a white button-up shirt. He was a legal secretary. On e-mail he’d been fanciful, almost goofy, but in person he seemed simultaneously anxious and bored. She could tell that he was in excellent shape, not from going to the gym but from being young enough that his body was still imprinted with whatever sports he’d played in high school and college. Sasha, who was thirty-five, had passed that point. Still, not even Coz knew her real age. The closest anyone had come to guessing it was thirty-one, and most put her in her twenties. She worked out daily and avoided the sun. Her online profiles all listed her as twenty-eight.

As she followed Alex from the bar, she couldn’t resist unzipping her purse and touching the fat green wallet just for a second, for the contraction it made her feel around her heart.

“You’re aware of how the theft makes you feel,” Coz said. “To the point where you remind yourself of it to improve your mood. But do you think about how it makes the other person feel?”

Sasha tipped back her head to look at him. She made a point of doing this now and then, just to remind Coz that she wasn’t an idiot-she knew the question had a right answer. She and Coz were collaborators, writing a story whose end had already been determined: she would get well. She would stop stealing from people and start caring again about the things that had once guided her: music; the network of friends she’d made when she first came to New York; a set of goals she’d scrawled on a big sheet of newsprint and taped to the walls of her early apartments:

Find a band to manage
Understand the news
Study Japanese
Practice the harp

“I don’t think about the people,” Sasha said.

“But it isn’t that you lack empathy,” Coz said. “We know that, because of the plumber.”

Sasha sighed. She’d told Coz the plumber story about a month ago, and he’d found a way to bring it up at almost every session since. The plumber was an old man, sent by Sasha’s landlord to investigate a leak in the apartment below hers. He’d appeared in Sasha’s doorway, tufts of gray on his head, and within a minute-boom-he’d hit the floor and crawled under her bathtub like an animal fumbling its way into a familiar hole. The fingers he’d groped toward the bolts behind the tub were grimed to cigar stubs, and reaching made his sweatshirt hike up, exposing a soft white back. Sasha turned away, stricken by the old man’s abasement, anxious to leave for her temp job, except that the plumber was talking to her, asking about the length and frequency of her showers. “I never use it,” she told him curtly. “I shower at the gym.” He nodded without acknowledging her rudeness, apparently used to it. Sasha’s nose began to prickle; she shut her eyes and pushed hard on both temples.

Opening her eyes, she saw the plumber’s tool belt lying on the floor at her feet. It had a beautiful screwdriver in it, the orange translucent handle gleaming like a lollipop in its worn leather loop, the silvery shaft sculpted, sparkling. Sasha felt herself contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite; she needed to hold the screwdriver, just for a minute. She bent her knees and plucked it noiselessly from the belt. Not a bangle jangled; her bony hands were spastic at most things, but she was good at this-made for it, she often thought, in the first drifty moments after lifting something. And once the screwdriver was in her hand, she felt instant relief from the pain of having an old soft-backed man snuffling under her tub, and then something more than relief: a blessed indifference, as if the very idea of feeling pain over such a thing were baffling.

“And what about after he’d gone?” Coz had asked when Sasha told him the story. “How did the screwdriver look to you then?”

There was a pause. “Normal,” she said.

“Really. Not special anymore?”

“Like any screwdriver.”

Sasha had heard Coz shift behind her and felt something happen in the room: the screwdriver, which she’d placed on the table (recently supplemented with a second table) where she kept the things she’d lifted, and which she’d barely looked at since, seemed to hang in the air of Coz’s office. It floated between them: a symbol.

“And how did you feel?” Coz asked quietly. “About having taken it from the plumber you pitied?”

How did she feel? How did she feel? There was a right answer, of course. At times Sasha had to fight the urge to lie simply as a way of depriving Coz of it.

“Bad,” she said. “Okay? I felt bad. [Expletive deleted], I’m bankrupting myself to pay for you-obviously I get that this isn’t a great way to live.”

More than once, Coz had tried to connect the plumber to Sasha’s father, who had disappeared when she was six. She was careful not to indulge this line of thinking. “I don’t remember him,” she told Coz. “I have nothing to say.” She did this for Coz’s protection and her own- they were writing a story of redemption, of fresh beginnings and second chances. But in that direction lay only sorrow.

Sasha and Alex crossed the lobby of the Lassimo Hotel in the direction of the street. Sasha hugged her purse to her shoulder, the warm ball of wallet snuggled in her armpit. As they passed the angular budded branches by the big glass doors to the street, a woman zigzagged into their path. “Wait,” she said. “You haven’t seen-I’m desperate.”

Sasha felt a twang of terror. It was the woman whose wallet she’d taken-she knew this instantly, although the person before her had nothing in common with the blithe, raven-haired wallet owner she’d pictured. This woman had vulnerable brown eyes and flat pointy shoes that clicked too loudly on the marble floor. There was plenty of gray in her frizzy brown hair.

Sasha took Alex’s arm, trying to steer him through the doors. She felt his pulse of surprise at her touch, but he stayed put. “Have we seen what?” he said.

“Someone stole my wallet. My ID is gone, and I have to catch a plane tomorrow morning. I’m just desperate!” She stared beseechingly at both of them. It was the sort of frank need that New Yorkers quickly learn how to hide, and Sasha recoiled. It had never occurred to her that the woman was from out of town.

“Have you called the police?” Alex asked.

“The concierge said he would call. But I’m also wondering-could it have fallen out somewhere?” She looked helplessly at the marble floor around their feet. Sasha relaxed slightly. This woman was the type who annoyed people without meaning to; apology shadowed her movements even now, as she followed Alex to the concierge’s desk. Sasha trailed behind.

“Is someone helping this person?” she heard Alex ask.

The concierge was young and spiky haired. “We’ve called the police,” he said defensively.

Alex turned to the woman. “Where did this happen?”

“In the ladies’ room. I think.”

“Who else was there?”

“No one.”

“It was empty?”

“There might have been someone, but I didn’t see her.”

Alex swung around to Sasha. “You were just in the bathroom,” he said. “Did you see anyone?”

“No,” she managed to say. She had Xanax in her purse, but she couldn’t open her purse. Even with it zipped, she feared that the wallet would blurt into view in some way that she couldn’t control, unleashing a cascade of horrors: arrest, shame, poverty, death.

Alex turned to the concierge. “How come I’m asking these questions instead of you?” he said. “Someone just got robbed in your hotel. Don’t you have, like, security?”

The words “robbed” and “security” managed to pierce the soothing backbeat that pumped through not just the Lassimo but every hotel like it in New York City. There was a mild ripple of interest from the lobby.

“I’ve called security,” the concierge said, adjusting his neck. “I’ll call them again.”

Sasha glanced at Alex. He was angry, and the anger made him recognizable in a way that an hour of aimless chatter (mostly hers, it was true) had not: he was new to New York. He came from someplace smaller. He had a thing or two to prove about how people should treat one another.

Two security guys showed up, the same on TV and in life: beefy guys whose scrupulous politeness was somehow linked to their willingness to crack skulls. They dispersed to search the bar. Sasha wished feverishly that she’d left the wallet there, as if this were an impulse she’d barely resisted.

“I’ll check the bathroom,” she told Alex, and forced herself to walk slowly around the elevator bank. The bathroom was empty. Sasha opened her purse, took out the wallet, unearthed her vial of Xanax, and popped one between her teeth. They worked faster if you chewed them. As the caustic taste flooded her mouth, she scanned the room, trying to decide where to ditch the wallet: In the stall? Under the sink? The decision paralyzed her. She had to do this right, to emerge unscathed, and if she could, if she did-she had a frenzied sense of making a promise to Coz.

The bathroom door opened, and the woman walked in. Her frantic eyes met Sasha’s in the bathroom mirror: narrow, green, equally frantic. There was a pause, during which Sasha felt that she was being confronted; the woman knew, had known all along. Sasha handed her the wallet. She saw, from the woman’s stunned expression, that she was wrong.

Excerpted from A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Copyright © 2010 by Jennifer Egan. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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  • Tina

    Just one word about the Excerpt you’ve provided:  Wow!

    Well, a second word, too:  Thanks!

  • Bud

    Time also twists around with your expectations of it.  For example, I think I should be able to get everything done that I need to in the few seconds it takes me to think of those everythings.

    Interesting to note too, is the recent suggestion that very young children’s lifetime perception of time can be altered by watching too much tv and experiencing its reconstruction of time.  

    • Tina

      Bud, are you perhaps referring to the piece on NPR yesterday that TV editting (cuts, zooms, etc.) influence how children experience life.  Mainly, life WITHOUT cuts and zooms can seem boring to them.  I THINK it was a child development psychologist who was speaking.  Thanks!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    So this is how a writer wins prizes these days–tell stories about drug-addled unheroes.

    • Keith Benoit

      Greg is angry.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        No, dismayed.

  • Anonymous

    Am I the only person who read Proust and didn’t feel the need to write a book about it?  Maybe I’ll write about that.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    What I’ve noticed about young people these days is that they are only users of technology.  They have no idea how it works, nor can they make it do anything that it isn’t already set up to do.

    • nj

      Did “young people” of the day make the newfangled telegraph do something it wasn’t already set up to do? How many drivers or any age know how their car works?

      Not sure what your point is here.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

        I ask my students to turn in their essays in double space, with indentations at the start of each paragraph, with one inch margins, and so on.  They have no idea how to change the default settings.  I know a twenty-one year old who can’t operate the virus scanner on her computer, so she lives with spyware.

        The sense that I get is that they take what they’re given.  They make no effort to go past that.

        • nj

          Well, sure, but i doubt this is unique or exclusive to the current generation, or to people using computers. I’m 57 and, with computers, i only learn something new when i absolutely have to.

          Keeping with my analogy, how many people know how to check their oil, or change a tire?

          • Drew You Too

            “i only learn something new when i absolutely have to.”
            That comment speaks volumes.

            “how many people know how to check their oil, or change a tire?”

            The question should not be “how many people know”, but rather how many people should know. It’s difficult to “learn something new” when you get a flat in the middle of the desert and there’s no cell signal and no helpful passerby. The fact that there’s a jack, spare tire, and a perfectly good tire tool in the trunk become inconsequential.

  • Tina

    Warning:  I’ve met a lot of young people who MISunderstand the past from the high-tech sources they’re using.  Some are very interested in hearing of the differences between their version and the version expressed by someone who actually lived thru the time period in question; some dismiss my knowledge, as if their techy sources are the ultimate in truth.  

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Caller, being human means a perception of a past and a future.  My dog lives in the moment, but she’d be dead without my support.

    • nj

      Yet, we are no less human during those moments when we are so fully engaged in a task or are simply being (“Sometimes I sits and thinks; sometimes I just sits.”).

      When detached from conscious thought or when we enter a space different from our usual state, and/or are fully absorbed in something, time becomes something different, perhaps receding, or disappearing, or suspending.

      “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” —Yogi Berra

      • MordecaiCarroll

        Well said (and extra points for the inclusion of the Yogi Berra zen koan).

        Some of my favorite moments in life occur when I’m deeply involved in doing something (playing music, writing a long email to a friend).  I feel like I step outside of time.  Or at the very least, I forget on a conscious level about the passage of time.  It’s a very satisfying feeling – without sounding too hippy-ish about it, moments like that are times in which I feel most “whole”

        • nj

          Yep, that’s it!

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    We are Facebook.  Resistance is futile.  We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. . .

    Scary.

  • Christina

    In our obsessive attempt today to capture things as they happen, and thus never lose them, we can thus never experience what Proust describes, since part of what he says is that we make sense of past experience, we understand past experience, only from the perspective of looking back from the present, and it is that distance that allows us to see who we were then, which we recognize by the ways in which we are no longer that person. Our sense of who we were is based in part on what was important to us then, what possessed us – which often we can barely recognize now. What happens if we fetishize obsessions now in such a way that we can never move on from them and become who we might be?

    Also, Proust’s longing is not where it ends for him. He starts there, but he is not writing just about nostalgia, he is writing almost scientifically about the experience of it – he examines what it means and how it happens. When he looks back at Odette’s style of dressing and remembers her in the Bois du Boulogne in her carriage, he is not literally longing for women to wear small hats again, he is marking the passage of the moment when she wore those hats, and all the unconscious aspects that made up that moment: his sense then of himself, his relationship to her, and all the qualities of air, light, sound, technology, fashion, etc of which he was only unconsciously aware at that time. He says that the power of memory comes from what we have unconsciously taken in and then equally unconsciously forgotten, which then somehow comes back to us by virtue of an accidental and unexpected occurance (like Proust’s narrator’s taste of the tea-dipped madeleine) that then brings forth memories that we didn’t know we had.

    It’s hard to imagine that all these shrink-wrapped, curated “memories” will have that same power. Some other kind, maybe.

    • Shelby Allen

      Thanks for putting them straight re Proust, mon favori.

      Shelby Allen

  • Rogergg99

    A great poet got to this long ago, someone who was a lot clearer about what he meant than a writer who says maybe it’s longing and maybe it isn’t, maybe it’s nostalgia and maybe it’s anti-nostlagia — a poet whose every other word wasn’t “I,” “me” or “mine.” Andrei Voznesensky: “Nostalgia for the Present.”

  • Tina

    Tom, I’m guessing, but I think you read Greg’s piece just as he intended it to be read!  Good for you!

    RE: going to Europe.  Probably just a few years BEFORE Jennifer’s visit to Europe, my relatives would have had my general itinerary so that letters were waiting for me at the telelphone and telegraph offices around European countries.  Yes, some difference in time, but NOT the total lacuna in communication that she experienced.  In that possible decade between her trip and mine, though, letter writing was dying off to a large extent.  Funny that people write letter-like postings now thru technology:  many abbreviated into a new language with new symbols.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      Ah, it seems that others here aren’t Trekkers.  See episodes with the Borg.

  • Anonymous

    If you can chronicle all your event on facebook as nostalgia, then what is it that you’re highlighting?  All events are the same as any other and so each event loses its importance.  The fact that the new generation views time a collage of web-posted pictures means they aren’t living in the present, but they are living in confusion:  No reflection, no priortization, every event counts.

    But in gathering all the memories of time, the youth miss out on one of the most useful tools for spritual growth: the practice letting go, because in the end, none of it, nothing in space-time capture in pictures and audio is going with you.

    • Jschon1416

      Bravo!

    • http://twitter.com/Laureness2 Lauren Stapleton

      really though, how is that different from keeping journals and diaries? it is just as permanent; you can always go back and reread them as you can browse through your old facebook pictures and events.

      • ToyYoda

        I would say it’s quite different.  The mere act of writing is reflecting and prioritizing, even if it’s a stream of consciousness.  Think about it for a moment.  

        If you write about your life, what sentence do you plan to put first?  What item comes first and what can be marginalized and ignored?  All the jumble of detail found in a photograph must be placed in linear order, made into a coherent narrative, and inevitably somethings will be dropped.Furthermore a journal is a glimpse into your mind’s past.  That’s something quite hard to do in photos.  If I look at my past journals, I see that I spent an inordinate amount of time scheduling events.  That’s a bit hard to capture in photo, unless I like to take photos of my to-do list.  (I don’t.).  Or for instance, perhaps in your younger days you care a lot of about what people may have said behind your back.  How would you capture that in photo? Would you spy on your friends and snapped them while they whisper in each other’s ears?  Probably not.

        Hopefully you’ll see that there is a HUGE difference between the two.

  • nj

    Years ago, i remember reading that a study of people suffering a fever perceived (estimated) a given time interval as shorter than healthy people.

  • Jschon1416

    Nostlagia more remembering a feeling connected to a past feeling from an experience, triggered by a new experience longing for a more enjoyable circumstance in the present. Like subliminal messaging, are we createing a butterfly effect with our AADD, looking at everything one thing at a time without understanding but moving on because our 15 secounds are up?

  • Tengberg75

    The short answer, as far as I see it, is that everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame and that we’re all special and worthy of praise and adoration.  All of the seemingly mundane things we do are now not so mundane and are part of the narrative of our online lives.  We must update our “status” to reflect our moods or our experiences or to show our dis/satifaction with a political/religious/pop-culture movement or idea.  We’re all unique and worthless, to steal a phrase from a friend.  We all are the stars of our own movies and everyone else is a bit player or co-star.  I have not read “Good Squad” but it sounds like a disjointed exercise in literary gimmickry disguised as a work of staggering genius.  We all have a unique voice but we’re all screaming at once and only the loudest and sometimes the most obnoxious voices are the only ones that will be heard.  The quiet voices and the silence between the screams are what interests me.  But we are all entitled to that voice.

  • Hillbilly

    finnegans wake! ha, ever (try to) read it?

  • Wm. James from Missouri

    The story the author told about telling her children about answering machines, in her time, and the child’s response, ‘ Did you have electricity ? ‘ was priceless !

  • Pingback: Anti-Nostalgia in the Age of Facebook « Hanoi Eats Sarah

  • Team 3

    Great article. Got another interview with Jennifer Egan on my blog (video): http://ratemybooks.com/2011/in-focus-jennifer-egan/ Maybe it would please a fan or 2? ;-)

  • Pingback: Be your own curator. Nobody else is gonna do it for you. « Snarky Sarah's Simple Blog

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1249621670 Tom Scott

    I think “our” concept of time speeds up as “our” age increases.  When we are young we look at years as time units.  Time is scaled as years till we graduate till the next grade.  Time till we are adults, till we can drive a car.  The people we date and group with are within a year or to of our own.  Till we inter the work force then time enters a “payday” concept.  So time become shorter and with in sight.  We also begin to date and group with people from may age groups.  We begin to see people beyond the trap of age.

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