Ongoing manga: Tengoku Daimakyō, by Masakazu Ishiguro

I dislike reviewing manga series when they haven’t finished; more often than not, how all the parts end up tied up together influences my view of the entire story. There are quite a few manga series that I follow and love but that haven’t ended yet, like Dungeon Meshi, Kaiju No. 8, Boy’s Abyss, Chi no Wadachi, etc. However, a week ago I came across the most intriguing manga in a good while, Tengoku Daimakyō (the title apparently translates to Heavenly Delusion), which has “only” reached chapter 55 (such series tend to end at about chapter 100), but that I’ve been looking forward to sit down and continue discovering what it has to offer.

This story is an odd mix of the Fallout series of games and The Last of Us (the first game, not the TV series, and certainly not the second game). We follow two storylines. In the first one, a bunch of kids are living in a controlled environment designed to raise them in a certain way while isolating them them from the outside world. The kids are tended to by AI, as well as by shady adults who seem to be guided by a cult-like drive to create a “heaven on earth,” where people won’t be discriminated in any way. You quickly realize that these kids slash test subjects have been manipulated genetically to whatever extent, and some of the most interesting scenes of that storyline involve children being unable to comprehend how utterly nuts their environment is; they are unfazed when they come across babies that look like alien squids, because that’s how human babies look like as far as they know. One of the children mingling with the rest straight up looks like an alien. We are only given a bit more information than the children, because we follow some of the adults that handle the operation. In general, the whole deal works like a Fallout vault.

The main storyline involves a twenty-year-old redheaded bodyguard who wears a cool jacket, and the fifteen-year-old kid for whom she’s working. They live in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Japan after some cataclysm destroyed a world that had achieved artificial general intelligence. Enough time has passed that the newest generations don’t even care how things ended up this bad. Anyway, for unknown reasons, disturbing monsters with superpowers are roaming the place, which has prevented human beings from establishing lasting settlements.

The aforementioned redhead, who is the main protagonist of this tale, was offered work by a sick young woman who promptly died, but not before bequeathing the redhead a ray gun along with the task of accompanying the fifteen-year-old kid to locate a place called Heaven, where someone who shares a face with the kid will need to receive an injection of a mysterious medicine. Our main couple sets off together to explore a ruined Japan. The redheaded girl also intends to locate the two people she remembers from before a monster attack landed her in a hospital bed for about a year.

The anime adaptation has already been produced. Here’s the trailer:

Troublingly enough, though, it has been picked up in the US by Disney Plus. This is a casually hardcore series that involves regular nudity, murder, The Thing-like grossness, a thirteen-year-old prostitute/hotel tycoon, rape, child rape, and such. There’s thematic stuff that Western fiction wouldn’t touch with a teen foot pole; for example, one of the settlements that the main couple comes across is controlled by a group of female supremacists that cut off women’s breasts if they are deemed too big, that kill any older men they come across, but capture attractive young men (and kids) to keep them as “seed pigs”. I have to assume that the anime, which I’ve barely started watching, must have been toned down significantly, which would be a shame.

All in all, fantastic worldbuilding, very detailed landscapes of a post-apocalyptic Japan, natural-sounding dialogue, cool fight scenes, and a narrative that gets sadder and more tragic the longer it runs. The only downside for me, quite minor in comparison, is that a couple of “evil” characters come across a bit over the top. Anyway, check Tengoku Daimakyō out. Or don’t. Do whatever you want.

Review: Watashitachi no Shiawase na Jikan, by Mizu Sahara

Four and a half stars. The title translates to Our Happy Hours.

The main protagonist of this tale used to be a promising teenage pianist. Now, as a thirty-year-old woman, she has swallowed a bottleful of pills and is waiting to die. She wakes up in the hospital, where she receives the unsympathetic visit of her cold, strict-looking mother. The protagonist shares with the old woman that she’s been trying to die since she was a teenager because she fears that at any point she’s going to murder her mother.

The protagonist’s fate seems out of her hands at this point. Her mother wants to send her to a mental institution at least for a month, but the protagonist’s aunt, a nun, offers her an alternative: the two of them will meet with a death row inmate who hasn’t responded positively to the nun’s attempts at supporting him. The protagonist can’t spare any empathy for anybody, even herself, but such a visit seems like a better option than getting locked up in the loony bin.

On the day of the visit, we learn that the death row inmate, jailed for murdering three people, is an orphan who lived in the streets for most of his life. He also clarifies to the protagonist’s aunt that the clergy sicken him: they look down upon people and offer empty platitudes. In his words, “The group which discriminates the most are the people who decorate themselves in pretty words.”

As the guards take the inmate away, the protagonist follows them to give him a drawing that some child had drawn for him. When the guy suggests that the protagonist apparently hadn’t gotten enough of looking down upon him, she surprises him by saying that she considers him lucky. She adds, “If people understood those things at the start of their lives, they’d be able to decide on their own how they’d like to live. When people are betrayed at the end of their lives, they hold on to hope until then. I think that would be a blessing. The greatest burden is when a person is let down in the middle of their life.”

As the inmate gets taken away, confused by her words, he realizes that he has seen this woman before: back when she was, for him, the distant image of a girl playing the piano.

What follows in this short series is a tight plot where the main characters spend a bit of time every Thursday getting to know each other, learning why they ended up as broken people who lost all hope along the way. Is it possible for those who have already given up to welcome the light of a new day?

A bleak yet beautiful tale that I’m very glad I read. I have to thank ChatGPT for this recommendation; I asked it what mangas similar to Inio Asano’s Oyasumi Punpun it could come up with. I had already read most of ChatGPT’s suggestions, and I had come across this particular series I’m reviewing, but I had ignored it because I didn’t see myself sparing any empathy for a death row inmate who likely killed innocent people. I thought the story did a good job acknowledging that the guy’s actions were partly unforgivable, certainly from a legal perspective.

Anyway, I recommend this story if you want to end up with tears in your eyes as you read it seated on a bench in the wooded area near your apartment.

Review: Nozoki Ana, by Wakou Honna

The title translates to “A peephole.” This is a loose review of the entire series.

Come for the “hentai with a plot.” Stay for the feels.

I started this long series a few months ago. I have forgotten most of the details of how the story began, and I’m not the kind of reviewer who would go over the first few chapters to get it right. Ultimately I read (and write) stories searching for meaning and to connect with imaginary humans, because it’s nearly impossible for me to do so with flesh-and-blood ones. I mainly care about what stories make me feel as they go through me, and what they leave behind once they’re done. Above all, I respect authors who seem to have lived vicariously through their tales, who come to care for their characters as if they were more important than anyone in their life.

That’s too serious of an introduction for this story. Our protagonist, a college freshman, starts living at one of those terrible apartment buildings that apparently every young manga protagonist is forced to inhabit. Soon enough, he discovers that his paper-thin wall features a little hole that allows a sliver of light to shine through. And once he peers into the hole, he gets an eyeful of his beautiful, college-age neighbor masturbating. She realizes that she has an audience, but she confesses that she has been peeping on him as well as he happily masturbated away.

Turns out that this young woman attends the protagonist’s college, to his embarrassment. They could decide to cover the hole and pretend they don’t know each other, but she wants to keep the dynamic going. In fact, she will expose the protagonist’s voyeuristic tendencies to everyone in his life unless he allows this kinky game to continue. A dangerous game like that needs some rules: he will get to peep at will some days, and the rest of the week is her turn. They aren’t allowed to cover the hole or acknowledge that they’re being watched even if friends or romantic partners come over.

At first I was impressed by the author’s talent to put her protagonist in as many compromising situations as possible. Sure, we are treated to manga boobs and butts, as well as sex scenes, nearly every chapter, but I kept returning to this story for the entertainment and the way it made me care about its characters. The protagonist is assertive and headstrong; this series wouldn’t have worked with one of those pussy MCs we get in so many other series. And his neighbor, the mysterious voyeur, kept stealing every scene she was in with her cool, controlled personality. Some book on writing I read ages ago spoke that all successful stories have an “us versus them” dynamic with a special character, who isn’t necessarily the love interest, and that they push each other to change for good or ill. As the reader, you become complicit with the growing hole that these two horny bastards keep digging themselves into as their secret threatens to ruin their relationship with everyone else.

I hadn’t expected the author, who by the way is a woman, to delve deeper into why the horny neighbor/blackmailer put her life in a standstill, barely leaving the apartment except to go to class, and refusing to make friends, to peek into the protagonist’s true self unimpeded a few days a week. I’m very glad that she did. This series improves as it goes on, as we are treated to more and more naked manga bodies, sessions of sex and masturbation, or at least panty shots.

What I didn’t expect was to find parallelisms between this story and my favorite manga, Inio Asano’s Oyasumi Punpun. Asano’s magnum opus ran from 2008 to 2013. This series ran from 2009 to 2013. The design of the voyeuristic neighbor and the cursed Aiko Tanaka from Asano’s work (I feel pained just by mentioning her name), as well as their twisted personalities, were similar enough to make me uncomfortable. And some twists and turns included particularly later on in the story reminded me even more of Asano’s devastating tale, although it didn’t come close to reaching those heights. The more casual drawing style didn’t help in that regard.

When I finished reading this manga series, I was sad that I couldn’t too evade my broken life to peek into that hole from which a sliver of light shines through. That’s some of the highest praise I can give any author.

Review: Sensei no Shirou Uso, by Akane Torikai

Four and a half stars. The title translates to “Sensei’s Pious Lie.” I’m reviewing the entire series.

What’s the deal with women? You nod along like you’re listening while they talk or complain or whatever, and then they either let you fuck them, or they don’t.

Our protagonist, a high school teacher in her mid-twenties, was a solitary introvert even before she was raped by her only friend’s fiancé. It happened a few years ago, but the man has kept the protagonist in bondage by blackmailing her, both by threatening to break her friendship with his fiancée, and to divulge some private photos he took of her. In the beginning she kept quiet because she didn’t want to hurt her friend, but over time, as she retreated further into herself, she grew to believe that she deserved it, that she was responsible for turning him on. After all, doesn’t she masturbate regularly to memories of herself being dominated by this rapist who calls her at random hours for a bit more degradation?

The protagonist feels dirty, broken, and undeserving of happiness. Those around her consider her a calm and cool-headed young woman, but in reality she’s coasting through life in the throes of anhedonia, going through the motions with no chance of improving.

We meet the other protagonist of this tale: a seventeen-year-old student of our main protagonist. He’s withdrawn, more interested in gardening than people, and generally considered a non-entity by his female classmates. One morning in class, some local bitch annoys him, which somehow leads to him bending over to pick up something and getting a close-up view of this bitch’s panty-covered privates. As the girl berates him for being a pervert, he assures her, despondent, that there’s no way he could ever get turned on by that pussy. Cue the rumors of him being gay. However, the truth slowly comes out: he’s been seen frequenting the company of an older woman. They were even seen leaving a love hotel together.

The school won’t tolerate students getting it on with adults, merely because it may tarnish the school’s image. Our main protagonist, the kid’s homeroom teacher, is tasked to make him assure that he hasn’t been sexually involved with an adult, regardless of whether or not it’s true. However, he admits it casually. When the teacher, who doesn’t want to be involved in such matters nor talk about them, prompts him for what actually happened, he opens up: the older woman was his boss at a part-time job, and he had felt pressured into having sex with her. Ever since, he’s been afraid of vaginas.

The teacher breaks down. She refuses to accept that this kid could have been raped, because she considers that as a man, he’s always able to overpower the woman and leave. She tells him that she knows what he’s looking for: he wants to be forgiven for being a man, for the knowledge that throughout his life he will defile women over and over again, destroying beauty and innocence in the process.

The teacher bursts into silent tears. As she composes herself, having blurted out a fraction of what she meant for someone else, the kid finds himself stunned. He has connected with this woman’s suffering like he hadn’t with any other human being. However, he believes that there must be a way for both of them to get back to living.

What follows is an emotionally complex tale about men and women and the way they hurt each other willingly or unwillingly. So complex, in fact, that about half of the emotional nuances might have gone over my head, but then again I’m one of the most emotionally oblivious fuckers around. Maybe you’d have better luck with it.

I loved this series. At about three-fifths of the way through, the quality decreased a bit; some scenes meant to hit hard fell flat, often due to the choices in the composition of the scenes. I was tempted to rate it three and a half stars then, but the ending floored me with how the author tied up various character arcs, along with the compelling conclusions we got out of this troublesome mess.

One of my biggest surprises in a while.

Cheating alone would usually be enough to make someone hate their partner. And what you did was worse. Anyone else would find it completely unforgivable. You hate women so much that you can’t help but explode into violence. But to me, and only me, you were always gentle and caring. And I think I found the value of my own life in the fact that I was the only one who could handle a pathetic man like you, who could staunch the endless flow of bile.

Review: Fire Punch, by Tatsuki Fujimoto

Four and a half stars.

Tatsuki Fujimoto became one of my favorite manga authors as I was reading through his wildly successful Chainsaw Man, the tale of a deranged orphan who made a lifelong deal with a demonic dog that is also somehow a chainsaw. This author came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned, but now I know that he was a prolific author of short stories (in manga format), as well as the creator of a single long-form series called Fire Punch.

The little I learned about Fujimoto’s personal life, apart from the fact that he can levitate, is that working through Fire Punch killed him as a manga artist (in a similar way as Oyasumi Punpun killed Asano). Fujimoto considers himself more of a cinephile and an animator than a mangaka, and his stories show this: they are extremely filmable, often resembling storyboards. When he got his one Serious Series (Serious Punch) out, apparently he thought about retiring with one last story in which he would do whatever crazy shit he wanted, without caring about whether or not others would enjoy it. That last story became Chainsaw Man (link goes to an exceptional trailer of the manga version of that story, which is somewhat spoilery for those who have seen the anime but not read the manga).

I was reluctant to get into Fire Punch because I had heard that it was unrelentingly grim, devoid of Chainsaw Man‘s goofiness, which added humor to an otherwise dark setting. And while Fire Punch does contain plenty of black humor, it comes from a few characters that manage to laugh maniacally against the hopeless and unforgiving world they live in.

The Earth has become a ball of ice. The few remaining human communities are ruled with an iron fist. Weaker people are enslaved and put to work, or else raped, or killed for food. Some humans are born with superpowers, which they call ‘blessings,’ yet the majority of such people are eventually captured and enslaved, to spend the rest of their lives as energy sources, strapped to chairs or beds.

Our protagonist and his sister, both maybe in their teens, have escaped from slavery and found refuge in a tiny community. The protagonist was born with the ability to regenerate wounds almost instantly, and due to such a blessing, he has become the only food source for the much older citizens of this community: the protagonist’s sister chops his arms a few times every day, and the citizens make stew out of them. The siblings are revered as a result.

With their parents long dead, the protagonist and his sister rely on each other as if they were the last people on Earth.

One day, soldiers from some tyrannical community raid them for resources. Upon learning that the citizens of the town survive on human flesh, their commander, who was born with special powers, decides to burn it all down. His are special flames: they will keep burning until the victim dies. Soon enough the protagonist finds himself engulfed in flames, and to his permanent grief, he finds out that his beloved sister has suffered the same fate. With her last breath, she utters a single word-long wish.

The protagonist’s blessing is so strong that he regenerates faster than the fire burns him, and yet that fire won’t go out until he dies. For months, long after everyone he cared about has died, he writhes on the snow while the fire burns his lungs. It takes him a long time to even manage to breathe properly. Some years later, he learns to control his regenerative abilities enough to keep the flames away from his face, and once he manages to think properly for the first time in years, he balls his right hand into a fist.

Burning with a desire for vengeance, along with literal flames, he treks the snowfields in search of the commander who killed his sister. On his way, he comes across desperate communities for whom he becomes a source of inspiration and reverence: the only source of warmth in a dead world, someone who with a single punch sets his foes on fire, burning them to death.

Unable to think properly due to the constant searing pain, the protagonist relies on other hardy people; the most notorious of them early on is a hundreds-of-years-old woman with similarly extreme regenerative abilities, a cinephile that only wished to be left alone and watch movies. However, some time ago her stash of movies went up in flames. Long gone nuts from boredom and detachment, she’s planning to follow the protagonist and film on a handheld camera the last movie of humanity.

As our protagonist obliterates his enemies, as well as hundreds or thousands of innocent bystanders, he comes to resent his sister’s last wish. He wishes he had died back then along with her. But a community has grown around him, and in their desperation, they have come to venerate him as a god. Unable to find a reason to keep going, he tries to lose himself in the roles he needs to play for other people’s personal movies. And maybe someone out there could remind him enough of his sister that he could convince himself that she has survived all along.

The further we get into the story, as the protagonist struggles to hold on to his sanity and humanity, he wonders what enemy remains to pursue and kill so he and his sister could rest. That old commander? The myriad of other enemies along the way? Is it Fire Punch himself?

As the haunting finale approaches, we hold on to that unique thing we can do that keeps us warm and allows us to put one foot in front of the other day after freezing day, long after we have ceased to know or even care why.

Review: The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith

In the late 40s, shortly after she sold the rights to her first book Strangers on a Train (as far as I remember, Hitchcock basically swindled her), Patricia Highsmith worked for a couple of weeks at the toy department of a store, where she met a stunning woman: a poised, rich-looking, beautiful blonde who asked for a toy for her daughter. The author sold her some doll and learned the woman’s address, because the store would deliver the toy there. More importantly for Patricia, she had come to realize something: she was in love at first sight with a woman. That was a problem for many reasons, one of them that she was dating a guy.

At home, in feverish two hours, Highsmith wrote the entire treatment for the story that would end up becoming The Price of Salt / Carol, a novel she would have never considered writing before. The author grew a fever shortly after; some kid at the store had exposed her to chicken pox. She had to quit her job. Since that day at the store, she only came close to the stunning blonde once: Patricia visited New Jersey and stared at the married woman’s home from a distance, as she likely wished that she could belong to that place.

This book follows a nineteen-year-old girl named Therese Belivet. Her parents abandoned her, she grew up in some sort of boarding school, and now she works at the toy department of a store, although she wishes she could become a stage designer. She’s dating a guy called Richard who’s a bit of a dilettante: he wants to become a professional painter, but he has little talent and doesn’t apply himself. He’s mainly trying to avoid his destiny of working at his family’s business.

One day a poised, rich-looking, beautiful blonde enters the toy department wanting to buy a present for her daughter. After the transaction, which included a pleasant interaction between them, Carol forgets some item at the store. The protagonist does something that the author likely wouldn’t have dared to do: she mails it to the woman’s residence along with some words to remember Therese by. Carol, touched, asks her out for lunch, which sets both women on a path of degeneration (a quote included later on features a rebuttal from this Carol character about such notion).

Carol is getting divorced because she doesn’t love her husband, and some months ago had a fling with a long-term female friend of hers. Now she risks losing her daughter because her husband, who is a no-nonsense business guy, wants full custody due to Carol’s lack of moral compass (mostly because her lover was another woman).

Given that Carol is based on an idealized love-at-first-sight, the author could have put her on a pedestal, but Carol, in the narrator’s words, is “a woman with a child and a husband, with freckles on her hands and a habit of cursing, of growing melancholy at unexpected moments, with a bad habit of indulging her will.” I found her quite compelling. In contrast, the protagonist felt somewhat vague until the last quarter of the story.

The bulk of the story consists of a roadtrip that both women take heading West. Therese loves Carol, but suspects that she may be a convenient distraction for the older woman, who has enough to worry about with the divorce. Meanwhile, her husband has money to spare to figure out how his estranged wife may want to enjoy her trip with a barely twenty-year-old girl.

Highsmith puts us then-and-there along with her protagonist: we are never sure of anyone else’s intentions, or even what’s going on some of the time, because Therese herself doesn’t know. Carol has lived a complicated life up to that point, and at times I felt as superfluous to Carol and her former lover Abby’s conversations, as well as those between Carol and her husband, as the protagonist herself did, which I consider a point in the novel’s favor; most of what I ask from a story is to make me step into the protagonist’s POV and live vicariously through them.

Patricia’s writing felt somewhat meagre throughout the first quarter of the story, maybe in part because she had never written anything like it (Strangers on a Train was her first novel). The prose improves consistently until the end.

As I mentioned in my review of one of the author’s most prominent biographies, supported by at least one of Patricia’s friends who was a psychiatrist, Patricia Highsmith seemed to be on the autistic spectrum. Her anxiety and sensory issues are on full display during the scenes at the toy department, and throughout the story, the protagonist’s (and author’s) inability to properly read people or even understand her own impulses come into play. The author’s obsession with the real-life Carol, as well as the less prominent behavior of Therese towards the fictional one, are characteristic of autism as well (and I know plenty about that).

This afternoon, after I finished the book, I sat down to watch the movie adaptation released in 2016, starring Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol. Blanchett was wonderful as her character; unfortunately, whoever wrote the screenplay manipulated the original in idiotic, and for me infuriating, ways. Instead of a stage designer (in the novel she gets paid a couple of times to work as one), movie Therese wants to be a photographer even though she barely has a camera; it makes her seem like a dilettante. Her boyfriend, Richard, just works at the same store and lacks any dreams or artistic sensibilities. Far worse yet: following the recent tradition in the media of shitting on men, that has become the norm in Western society for the last twenty years or so, the main male characters are depicted as obnoxious, brutish and irrational. Patricia didn’t write them that way. I couldn’t get past the midpoint of the movie for that reason.

Patricia Highsmith chose to publish this novel with the pseudonym of Claire Morgan, and afterwards she started frequenting gay bars in New York, where she became a local legend. I recently watched a short documentary about Highsmith that mentioned that the lesbian ladies of New York referred to Patricia as the White Wolf, because of her ravenous appetite, the fact that she was white, and that she hunted monsters for coin. Patricia mentioned in her diaries, using different words, that she got enough pussy to last her several lifetimes.

I’m a guy and I can’t consider myself a lesbian even if I wanted to (although Patricia and I seem to have the same taste in dommy mommies women), but this story made me experience again that unique gift of written fiction: the author captured through words alone two real human beings that remain as alive and young as they were now ages ago, and that will, one supposes, go on loving each other endlessly.

Here are the quotes I highlighted:

Therese’s lips opened to speak, but her mind was too far away. Her mind was at a distant point, at a distant vortex that opened on the scene in the dimly lighted, terrifying room where the two of them seemed to stand in desperate combat. And at the point of the vortex where her mind was, she knew it was the hopelessness that terrified her and nothing else. It was the hopelessness of Mrs. Robichek’s ailing body and her job at the store, of her stack of dresses in the trunk, of her ugliness, the hopelessness of which the end of her life was entirely composed. And the hopelessness of herself, of ever being the person she wanted to be and of doing the things that person would do. Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.

There was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol. That evening, the dark flat streets of New York, the tomorrow of work, the milk bottle dropped and broken in her sink, became unimportant. She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves.

I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me.

Was life, were human relations like this always, Therese wondered. Never solid ground underfoot. Always like gravel, a little yielding, noisy so the whole world could hear, so one always listened, too, for the loud, harsh step of the intruder’s foot.

Therese frowned, floundering in a sea without direction or gravity, in which she knew only that she could mistrust her own impulses.

Happiness was like a green vine spreading through her, stretching fine tendrils, bearing flowers through her flesh. She had a vision of a pale white flower, shimmering as if seen in darkness, or through water. Why did people talk of heaven, she wondered.

If she ever had an impulse to tell Carol, the words dissolved before she began, in fear and in her usual mistrust of her own reactions, the anxiety that her reactions were like no one else’s, and that therefore not even Carol could understand them.

Between the pleasure of a kiss and of what a man and woman do in bed seems to me only a gradation. A kiss, for instance, is not to be minimized, or its value judged by anyone else. I wonder do these men grade their pleasure in terms of whether their actions produce a child or not, and do they consider them more pleasant if they do. It is a question of pleasure after all, and what’s the use debating the pleasure of an ice cream cone versus a football game–or a Beethoven quartet versus the Mona Lisa. I’ll leave that to the philosophers. But their attitude was that I must be somehow demented or blind (plus a kind of regret, I thought, at the fact that a fairly attractive woman is presumably unavailable to men). […] The most important point I did not mention and was not thought of by anyone–that the rapport between two men or two women can be absolute and perfect, as it can never be between man and woman, and perhaps some people want just this, as others want that more shifting and uncertain thing that happens between men and women. It was said or at least implied yesterday that my present course would bring me to the depths of human vice and degeneration. Yes, I have sunk a good deal since they took you from me. It is true, if I were to go on like this and be spied upon, attacked, never possessing one person long enough so that knowledge of a person is a superficial thing–that is degeneration. Or to live against one’s grain, that is degeneration by definition.

It was Carol she loved and would always love. Oh, in a different way now, because she was a different person, and it was like meeting Carol all over again, but it was still Carol and no one else. It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.

Review: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, by Andrew Wilson

Originally written in September 2016, posted on Goodreads.

A few years ago I found a quote (I love quotes), by a certain Amy Hempel, that intrigued me:

“I read about a famous mystery writer who worked for one week in a department store. One day she saw a woman come in and buy a doll. The mystery writer found out the woman’s name, and took a bus to New Jersey to see where the woman lived. That was all. Years later, she referred to this woman as the love of her life. It is possible to imagine a person so entirely that the image resists attempts to dislodge it.”

I wondered who that mystery writer could have been, and I also identified with a mind that would daydream an entire life out of a moment and follow that obsession. That “mystery writer” was Patricia Highsmith.

While I was reading her This Sweet Sickness, about a loner unable to connect with people and who obsesses over a woman he loves, to the point of building a complete second identity, I identified with it, and how it was told, in a way that suggested that the writer was the kind of peculiar I was; hardly anyone knows about the depths of social blindness, isolation, anxiety and obsession (and attached maladies like obsessive-compulsive disorder and chronic depression) like autistic people.

Patricia Highsmith was a retiring, silent person with a tremendously dark interior world, who could not properly connect with anyone, who loved certain people when they were away but needed space when they were close. She considered herself to have a man’s brain, but didn’t want a man’s body, and was attracted to women, but didn’t particularly like them. She was a masochist who consistently “chose” to love women who bossed her around and hurt her. She smoked and drank so heavily that those vices destroyed her body, although, curiously enough, didn’t seem to have affected her mind. Her instincts didn’t align with the human world around her. She was hypersensitive to noises and being touched. She was clumsy and awkward. She was at her best while daydreaming or writing, but fell into horrible depressions the moment she came back to herself. She was never at ease with the world.

Almost everything about her screamed Asperger’s to me, but I can’t be objective about it. It was weird that nobody else caught it, until one of her friends did, as mentioned in this biography:

“In hindsight, I think Pat could have had a form of high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. She had a lot of typical traits. She had a terrible sense of direction, she would always get lost and whenever she went to the hairdresser’s she would have trouble parking even though she had been with me lots of times. She was hypersensitive to sound and had these communications difficulties. Most of us screen certain things, but she would spit out everything she thought. She was not aware of the nuances of conversation and she didn’t realise when she had hurt other people. That was probably why her love affairs never lasted very long, because she couldn’t overcome the difficulties in communicating. Although she didn’t really understand other people – she had such a strange interior world – she was a fantastic observer. She would see things that an average person would never experience.”

She wasn’t a recluse, however, like some journalists called her. She kept plenty of friends, travelled and invited people over, people who tolerated how weird she was. She never made it as big as she deserved mostly because she didn’t care to belong to a “writer’s community,” didn’t like to expose herself to the public (she considered interviews humiliating), and her stories usually failed to offer hope or platitudes.

Patricia was also a misanthrope who disliked or even hated way more stuff and people than she liked. She got in trouble for her opinions regarding black people, religion, and Israel. Having been born clearly different, she was a hardcore individualist that intended people to take responsibility for themselves. During the last half of her life, and having been on the brink of bankruptcy, never knowing if the next book was going to sell, she was very stingy with money, but in her will she left her millions to a writer’s retreat she spent a few weeks in while writing her first novel. She died alone in Switzerland, in a home designed as a bunker.

Despite all of her issues, reading about her has made me aware of a hole in the world, the kind that opens when a real human being goes away. I look forward to learning more about her, and about myself, while reading her stories.

The following is a poem that Patricia wrote during her last years in Switzerland:

At dawn, after my death hours before,
The sunlight will spread at seven o’clock as usual
On these trees which I know.
Greenness will burst, dark green shadows yield
To the cruel-benign, indifferent sun.
Indifferent will stand the trees in my own garden,
Unweeping for me on the morning of my death.
Same as ever, roots athirst,
The trees will rest in breezeless dawn,
Blind and uncaring,
The trees that I knew,
That I tended.

I thought about this review because I’m finishing Patricia’s The Price of Salt, a prolonged daydream set in the 50s about dating that woman from New Jersey that at the most she saw a couple of times. In a significant part because Patricia reminds me so much of myself, I can’t think of any other dead writer that I would want more to be still alive and healthy.

Here are some quotes I highlighted from this biography:

After reading Burgum, [Patricia Highsmith] wrote in her cahier that, like Kafka, she felt she was a pessimist, unable to formulate a system in which an individual could believe in God, government or self. Again like Kafka, she looked into the great abyss which separated the spiritual and the material and saw the terrifying emptiness, the hollowness, at the heart of every man, a sense of alienation she felt compelled to explore in her fiction. As her next hero, she would take an architect, ‘a young man whose authority is art and therefore himself,’ who when he murders, ‘feels no guilt or even fear when he thinks of legal retribution.’ The more she read of Kafka the more she felt afraid as she came to realise, ‘I am so similar to him.’

If [Patricia Highsmith] saw an acquaintance walking down the sidewalk she would deliberately cross over so as to avoid them. When she came in contact with people, she realised she split herself into many different, false, identities, but, because she loathed lying and deceit, she chose to absent herself completely rather than go through such a charade. Highsmith interpreted this characteristic as an example of ‘the eternal hypocrisy in me,’ rather her mental shape-shifting had its source in her quite extraordinary ability to empathise. Her imaginative capacity to subsume her own identity, while taking on the qualities of those around her – her negative capability, if you like – was so powerful that she said she often felt like her inner visions were far more real than the outside world. She aligned herself with the mad and the miserable, ‘the insane man who feels himself one with all mankind, all life, because in losing his mind, he has lost his ego, his self-ness,’ yet realised that such a state inspired her fiction. Her ambition, she said, was to write about the underlying sickness of this ‘daedal planet’ and capture the essence of the human condition: eternal disappointment.

[Patricia Highsmith] had experienced at first hand many of Ripley’s characteristics – splintered identity, insecurity, inferiority, obsession with an object of adoration, and the violence that springs from repression. Like her young anti-hero, she knew that in order to survive, it was necessary to prop oneself up with a psychological fantasy of one’s own making. ‘Happiness, for me, is a matter of imagination,’ she wrote in her notebook while writing The Talented Mr. Ripley. ‘Existence is a matter of unconscious elimination of negative and pessimistic thinking. I mean, to survive at all. And this applies to everyone. We are all suicides under the skin, and under the surface of our lives.’

Early in 1967 Highsmith’s agent told her why her books did not sell in paperback in America. It was, said Patricia Schartle Myrer, because they were ‘too subtle,’ combined with the fact that none of her characters were likeable. ‘Perhaps it is because I don’t like anyone,’ Highsmith replied. ‘My last books may be about animals.’

As some people turned to religion for comfort, so, Highsmith wrote in her notebook in September 1970, she took refuge in her belief that she was making progress as a writer. But she realised that both systems of survival were, however, fundamentally illusory. She wrote, she said, quoting Oscar Wilde because, ‘Work never seems to me a reality, but a way of getting rid of reality.’

It seemed to me as if she had to ape feelings and behaviour, like Ripley. Of course sometimes having no sense of social behaviour can be charming, but in her case it was alarming. I remember once, when she was trying to have a dinner party with people she barely knew, she deliberately leaned towards the candle on the table and set fire to her hair. People didn’t know what to do as it was a very hostile act and the smell of singeing and burning filled the room.

Those close to [Patricia Highsmith], particularly her family, often commented on how Highsmith’s vision of reality was a warped one. In April 1947, she transcribed into her notebook what was, presumably, a real dialogue between herself and her mother, in which Mary accused her of not facing the world. Highsmith replied that she did indeed view the world ‘sideways, but since the world faces reality sideways, sideways is the only way the world can be looked at in true perspective.’ The problem, Highsmith said, was that her psychic optics were different to those around her, but if that was the case, her mother replied, then she should equip herself with a pair of new spectacles. Highsmith was not convinced. ‘Then I need a new birth,’ she concluded.

[Patricia Highsmith] was overwhelmed by sensory stimulation – there were too many people and too much noise and she just could not handle the supermarket. She continually jumped, afraid that someone might recognise or touch her. She could not make the simplest of decisions – which type of bread did she want, or what kind of salami? I tried to do the shopping as quickly as possible, but at the check-out she started to panic. She took out her wallet, knocked off her glasses, dropped the money on the floor, stuff was going all over the place.

Throughout her life, Highsmith looked for women whom she could worship. Sex was far from the most important factor in any relationship; rather, it was this near-divine quality for which she yearned.

The artistic life is a long and lovely suicide precisely because it involves the negation of self; as Highsmith imagined herself as her characters, so Ripley takes on the personae of others and in doing so metamorphoses himself into a ‘living’ work of art. A return to the ‘real life’ after a period of creativity resulted in a fall in spirits, an agony Highsmith felt acutely. She voiced this pain in the novel via Bernard’s quotation of an excerpt from Derwatt’s notebook: ‘There is no depression for the artist except that caused by a return to the self.’

As soon as [Patricia Highsmith] had stopped work, she felt purposeless and quite at a loss about what to do with herself. ‘There is no real life except in working,’ she wrote in her notebook, ‘that is to say in the imagination.’ It was in this state that she observed that only one situation would drive her to commit murder – being part of a family unit. Most likely, she thought, she would strike out in anger at a small child, felling them in one blow. But children over the age of eight, she surmised, would probably take two blows to kill. The reality of socialising with anyone, no matter how close, she said, left her feeling fatigued.

As the new year began, [Patricia Highsmith] felt completely paralysed, incapable of reading or picking up the phone. ‘I can feel my grip loosening on my self,’ she wrote. ‘It is like strength failing in the hand that holds me above an abyss.’ She wished there was a more awful-sounding word for what she was feeling than simply ‘depression.’ She wanted to die, she said, but then realised that the best course of action would be to endure the wretchedness until it passed. Her wish was, ‘Not to die, but not to exist, simply, until this is over.’

Faced with the prospect of a black depression, Highsmith once again retreated into fantasy, dreaming about an affair with the actress Anne Meacham, whose picture she had seen in a magazine publicising her role in the Tennessee Williams’ play, In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel. After the disasters of recent years, she reckoned that the safest option was to escape into romantic imagination. She reviewed her failures over the past five years and concluded that ‘the moral is: stay alone. Any idea of any close relationship should be imaginary, like any story I am writing. This way no harm is done to me or to any other person.’

[Patricia Highsmith] was an extremely unbalanced person, extremely hostile and misanthropic and totally incapable of any kind of relationship, not just intimate ones. I felt sorry for her, because it wasn’t her fault. There was something in her early days or whatever that made her incapable. She drove everybody away and people who really wanted to be friends ended up putting the phone down on her.

[Patricia Highsmith] was a figure of contradictions: a lesbian who didn’t particularly like women; a writer of the most insightful psychological novels who, at times, appeared bored by people; a misanthrope with a gentle, sweet nature.

Review: Boku-tachi ga Yarimashita, by Muneyuki Kaneshiro

Four stars.

The title of this manga series translates to “We Did It.” It follows a group of three hapless highschoolers who happen to attend a high school right across the one that houses the worst youth gang in town. Students from the first high school are routinely tormented by thugs, but weak as they are, they have no choice but to stew in their rage and frustration.

These highschoolers are forced for whatever reason to spend most of their afternoons doing after-school activities, which in their case translates to playing around in a shipping-container-like space on the roof. They are always joined by a graduated older student that although he has been warned by teachers to stay away from the school, he doesn’t have anything else going on. Because he happens to be rich thanks to his absent father, and eager to buy friendships through spending that money, the main trio of highschoolers enjoy fucking around doing more or less expensive activities that this paisen (how they call him; a looser way of saying senpai) bankrolls.

One afternoon, as the protagonist and one of his friends are leaving the school, his pal (who ends up becoming the most obnoxious character in the story), shouts at the thugs gathered outside the opposite high school that they should all die. This guy tried to make sure that he didn’t shout loud enough, but unfortunately for every main character, some of the worst thugs were hanging out close by, behind the duo.

Later, these gang members attempt to kidnap the protagonist for being associated with his friend, but he gets saved by his romantic interest. The thugs do manage to kidnap the guy who wished them to die. They bring him to their hideout, and force him under threat of torture to fight another hapless student they had kidnapped. In the end they beat the protagonist’s friend unconscious, then send him back to his friends in a cardboard box.

The main group, including the rich graduated guy who buys their friendship, is infuriated. But the rich guy has a plan to get back at the high school across the street and its delinquent students: he has procured some explosives that are bound to give them a good scare. At night, clad in animal masks, they break into the opposite school and plant the explosives.

On the next school day, the main group gathers on the roof as they set up the detonators. The thugs that assailed them, as well as a couple hundred of other students, are present as our guys cheerfully blow up the explosives.

Turns out that detonating explosives in a school has concerning consequences for our main characters: one of the explosives blows up the propane tanks, and they witness how ten students or so burn to death. Others are injured to extents that will ruin their lives.

Their stunt got recorded. Some of their teachers and people in their life suspect them. They point fingers their way. The leader of those thugs survived despite his injuries, and is looking to murder the main guys. After their graduated benefactor gets arrested and charged with mass murder, the trio of high schoolers decides to flee. What follows is an anxiety-inducing tale in which the main trio’s friendship will get tested, and they’ll learn to navigate a hostile world that will force them to make some troublesome concessions to survive.

It’s a well-plotted story with plenty of twists and turns, and that in general reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: the four characters involved are eaten up to different extents by guilt due to the crime they committed. The protagonist wonders if he has any right to be happy when he was responsible for ruining so many people’s lives. A moment summarizes this grim manga for me: when a person stalks the protagonist to murder him, the protagonist is overjoyed that someone is about to free him from the guilt and the regret; he gets on his knees, rips open his shirt, and begs the would-be murderer to stab his heart. The would-be murdered gets freaked out and runs away.

My favorite character ended up being the rich older guy. He’s the ugly sort without prospects other than being rich because his absent father keeps sending him money. One of the most interesting sequences of the story involved this guy trying to track down his father to figure out if the old man loved him, with devastating results for his sanity.

Most of the first act of this story annoyed me. The author was trying to set up the main group as carefree, spending their time in silly activities that pictured them as empty-headed idiots. It was mostly done to sell as believable that they wouldn’t contemplate the consequences of planting explosives in a high school, but until then they annoyed me enough that I considered dropping the story. However, it became a compelling tale worth the effort.

Review: Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy

Four and a half stars.

This book is the companion piece to McCarthy’s latest (and likely last) novel The Passenger (link goes to the review I wrote of it). Stella Maris consists entirely of fictional transcripts of therapy sessions set somewhere in Wisconsin during the early seventies. No narrative prose of any kind.

According to the ratings, most people, including me, seem to have found this book more compelling than The Passenger, and it’s mainly due to the patient involved: Alicia, the fabled sister of the other book’s protagonist; in that narrative, his sister has been dead for about ten years. Alicia is extremely intelligent, a synesthete, a math genius. Since puberty, she has been receiving the visits of strange people that may or may not exist. She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and autism by different psychiatrists. She’s hopelessly in love with her brother, who during the period recorded in this book is considered brain dead as he lies in a coma after a car crash. Alicia also wishes she had never been born and is currently planning to kill herself, a fact that her therapist suspects but didn’t manage to prevent.

In my review of The Passenger, I blasted Alicia’s brother, named Bobby, for gallivanting around the world instead of being there for her unique, hopelessly vulnerable sister who loved him. I have no clue how I missed in that other book that he had ended up in a coma; if Alicia hadn’t considered him brain dead, as the Italian doctors who tended to him assured her, she wouldn’t have returned to the States and committed herself to a sanitarium, from which she wandered into the cold of the woods to die. However, Bobby did decide to spend his inheritance on a Formula One car, which he eventually crashed. So Alicia’s fate is still mostly on you, buddy.

Alicia is one of those people who are born too different, too strange, and intelligent enough to know it. She never belonged anywhere. She worked tirelessly to make it as a mathematician, but although she managed to attend college as a teen, she never presented her thesis: her probing of the fringes of mathematics had led her to question the discipline itself. Her mind forced her to contemplate the limits of reality on a daily basis, and she was tormented by the lack of answers.

Despite her clichéd name and a couple of points she made that I found dubious (I won’t specify, because I don’t want people to annoy me about them), I found Alicia enthralling. She was the first fictional character in a long time with whom I would love to talk on a regular basis, and whose death hurts for real. There’s a part in which she describes that after returning from Italy she travelled to Lake Tahoe with the intention of rowing away from the shore, attaching a weight to herself and sinking to the depths. Her mind-simulation of how that would play out made me physically ill not only because of the extreme detail, but because I wanted her to keep living.

I don’t know if I would recommend such a book to anyone; I suspect that McCarthy wrote these therapy sessions as character work to understand such a complex character, but that he eventually realized he had achieved something important, so he polished it for publication. In any case, if you are the right person for this book, its blurb alone should convince you to read it.

Here are the quotes I highlighted:

The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.

Nobody comes with names. You give them names so that you can find them in the dark.

That there is little joy in the world is not just a view of things. Every benevolence is suspect. You finally figure out that the world does not have you in mind. It never did.

We’re here on a need-to-know basis. There is no machinery in evolution for informing us of the existence of phenomena that do not affect our survival. What is here that we dont know about we dont know about.

If a psychosis was just some synapses misfiring why wouldnt you simply get static? But you dont. You get a carefully crafted and fairly articulate world never seen before. Who’s doing this? Who is it who is running around hooking up the dangling wires in new and unusual ways. Why is he doing it? What is the algorithm he follows? Why do we suspect there is one?

Sites that have been host to extraordinary suffering will eventually be either burned to the ground or turned into temples.

The simplest undertaking is predicated upon a future that has no warrant.

People are interested in other people. But your unconscious is not. Or only as they might directly affect you. It’s been hired to do a very specific job. It never sleeps. It’s more faithful than God.

If you have a patient with a condition that’s not understood why not ascribe it to a disorder that is also not understood? Autism occurs in males more than it does in females. So does higher order mathematical intuition. We think: What is this about? Dont know. What is at the heart of it? Dont know. All I can tell you is that I like numbers. I like their shapes and their colors and their smells and the way they taste. And I dont like to take people’s word for things.

There’s data in the world available only to those who have reached a certain level of wretchedness. You dont know what’s down there if you havent been down there.

There seems to be a ceiling to well-being. My guess is that you can only be so happy. While there seems to be no floor to sorrow. Each deeper misery being a state heretofore unimagined. Each suggestive of worse to come.

Animals might whimper if they’re hungry or cold. But they dont start screaming. It’s a bad idea. The more noise you make the more likely you are to be eaten. If you’ve no way to escape you keep silent. If birds couldnt fly they wouldnt sing. When you’re defenseless you keep your opinions to yourself.

The rage of children seemed inexplicable other than as a breach of some deep and innate covenant having to do with how the world should be and wasnt.

Rage is only for what you believe can be fixed. All the rest is grief.

[The unconscious has] been on its own for a long time. Of course it has no access to the world except through your own sensorium. Otherwise it would just labor in the dark. Like your liver. For historical reasons it’s loath to speak to you. It prefers drama, metaphor, pictures. But it understands you very well. And it has no other cause save yours.

If the world itself is a horror then there is nothing to fix and the only thing you could be protected from would be the contemplation of it.

The void has no stake in the world’s continuing existence. It’s home as well to countless millions of meteorites. Some of them enormous. Trundling across the blackness at forty miles a second. I think if there were anything to care it would have cared by now.

Leonardo cant be explained. Or Newton, or Shakespeare. Or endless others. Well. Probably not endless. But at least we know their names. But unless you’re willing to concede that God invented the violin there is a figure who will never be known. A small man who went with his son into the stunted forests of the little iceage of fifteenth century Italy and sawed and split the maple trees and put the flitches to dry for seven years and then stood in the slant light of his shop one morning and said a brief prayer of thanks to his creator and then–knowing this perfect thing–took up his tools and turned to its construction. Saying now we begin.

The dream wakes us to tell us to remember. Maybe there’s nothing to be done. Maybe the question is whether the terror is a warning about the world or about ourselves. The night world from which you are brought upright in your bed gasping and sweating. Are you waking from something you have seen or from something that you are?

What seems inconsequential to us by reason of usage is in fact the founding notion of civilization. Language, art, mathematics, everything. Ultimately the world itself and all in it.

[My brother and I,] We were like the last on earth. We could choose to join the beliefs and practices of the millions of dead beneath our feet or we could begin again. Did he really have to think about it? Why should I have no one? Why should he? I told him that I’d no way even to know if there was justice in my heart if I had no one to love and love me. You cannot credit yourself with a truth that has no resonance. Where is the reflection of your worth? And who will speak for you when you are dead?

Those who choose a love that can never be fulfilled will be hounded by a rage that can never be extinguished.

What is the inner life of an eidolon? Do his thoughts and his questions originate with him? Do mine with me? Is he my creature? Am I his? I saw how he made do with his paddles and that he was ashamed for me to see. His turn of speech, his endless pacing. Was that my work? I’ve no such talent. I cant answer your questions. The tradition of trolls or demons standing sentinel against inquiry must be as old as language. Still, maybe a friend must be someone you can touch. I dont know. I no longer have an opinion about reality. I used to. Now I dont. The first rule of the world is that everything vanishes forever. To the extent that you refuse to accept that then you are living in a fantasy.

Sometimes in the winter in the dark I’d wake and everything that smacked of dread would have lifted up and stolen away in the night and I would just be lying there with the snow blowing against the glass. I’d think that maybe I should turn on the lamp but then I’d just lie there and listen to the quiet. The wind in the quiet. There are times now when I see those patients in their soiled nightshirts lying on gurneys in the hallway with their faces to the wall that I ask myself what humanity means. I would ask does it include me.

The arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system. Co-opting those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. The most susceptible to appropriation.

The unconscious system of guidance is millions of years old, speech less than a hundred thousand. The brain had no idea any of this was coming. The unconscious must have had to do all sorts of scrambling around to accommodate a system that proved perfectly relentless. Not only it is comparable to a parasitic invasion, it’s not comparable to anything else.

There were times I’d see [my brother] looking at me and I would leave the room crying. I knew that I’d never be loved like that again. I just thought that we would always be together. I know you think I should have seen that as more aberrant than I did, but my life is not like yours. My hour. My day. I used to dream about our first time together. I do yet. I wanted to be revered. I wanted to be entered like a cathedral.

It’s certainly possible that the imaginary is best. Like a painting of some idyllic landscape. The place you would most like to be. That you never will.

Review: Yogen no Nayuta, by Tatsuki Fujimoto

Tatsuki Fujimoto, chainsaw dude and master of levitation, who got banned from Twitter recently for impersonating his little sister, has become my fourth horseman of the Apocalypse after Inio Asano (Oyasumi Punpun, Solanin), Shūzō Oshimi (The Flowers of Evil, Inside Mari, Happiness, Blood on the Tracks), and Minoru Furuya (Buko to Issho, Wanitokagegisu, Himizu, Ciguatera, Saltiness). I loved Fujimoto’s Chainsaw Man and I’m having a blast with the anime adaptation, but I don’t dare to get into his Fire Punch yet, so I’m going through his one-shots.

So yes, this Yogen no Nayuta is one of his short stories. In an alternate Earth where magic is real but not particularly powerful, some prophecy prophesized that a horned baby would be born and she would be the harbinger of the end of the world. This Nayuta girl is born with horns, which rip her mother apart on the way out. Her remaining family are aware of the prophecy. Her father gets killed shortly after for being responsible for this abomination, so only Nayuta’s brother remains to take care of her. Although her brother suspects that she may indeed bring forth the Apocalypse, because she keeps murdering animals for no apparent reason and her attempts at verbal communication are solely composed of ominous words, he’s her big brother, damn it, so he’ll take care of his precious imouto.

If this one-shot is making any point at all, it may be that even if you were born to bring forth the Apocalypse, as long as someone loves you enough, perhaps you’ll be able to channel your homicidal instincts into some activities that don’t involve mass murder. I suppose that’s as good a point as any other.

Curiously, Fujimoto reused this Nayuta girl, but hornless, in Chainsaw Man, although I can’t say in which way because it would be a massive spoiler.

Four stars for this one.