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ben lerner’s scapegoat

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At one point, quite late in Ben Lerner’s new novel 10:04, the narrator/protagonist has a meeting with one of his graduate poetry students. The conversation soon reveals that the student, Calvin, has become psychologically unhinged.

“Well, you said once that we shouldn’t worry about our literary careers, should worry about being underwater.” I must have been joking around in class— half joking. “And in any new civilization you need those who have a sense of usable history and can reconstruct at least the basic concepts from science. Also there is the literalization of all literature because the sky is falling, if you know what I mean— that’s no longer just a phrase. A lot of people can’t handle it, how everything becomes hieroglyphic. I lost my girlfriend over that. Body without organs, for instance. I can swallow but there is a cost to swallowing in the sense that I don’t have the same kind of throat. That’s a metaphor but it has real effects, which is what she couldn’t understand. What’s tricky is you want to test it, take poison or whatever to show how you can absorb it, but you don’t know in that instance if it will be symbolic or spider out.”

The college did not have good psychiatric services. He was twenty- six; no one could force him to get help or even legally contact his parents, whoever they were.

“Nobody thinks we’ve been told the truth about Fukushima. Think about the milk you’re buying from a bodega, the hot particles there, I mean in addition to the hormones and what those do. There are rabbits being born there with three ears. The seas are poisoned. Look at this”— here he pulled his hair back, maybe to indicate his widow’s peak; I wasn’t sure— “that wasn’t there when I lived in Colorado. And I know that some of the bone mass in my jaw has thinned, can feel that when it clicks, but I can’t afford insurance. And now there is this storm, but who selects its name? You have a committee of like five guys in a situation room generating the names before they form. The World Meteorological Organization’s Regional Association IV Hurricane Committee— I looked it up. And ever since I looked it up I can’t get service on my phone. Every call is just dropped.”

“I agree it’s a crazy time,” I said. “But I think in times like these we have to try to stay connected to people. And we have to try to make our own days, despite all the chaos. We have to focus on feeling comfortable in our own skin, and we need to be open to getting help with that.” I was desperately trying to channel my parents.

It’s a fairly convincing portrait of a graduate student, hopped up on Deleuze and Guattari and god knows what else, who has lost his bearings – and in particular, has lost his grasp on the relationship between personal events and global events. Calvin’s paranoia takes a particular shape: he is reading the matters of his own life as if they are directly related to their historical context, the apocalyptically-tinged context of our times. His difficulty swallowing has something to do with a failure of meaning that in turn has something to do with ‘being underwater’ – metaphorically as a cash-strapped student or literally given the climate change atmospherics of this work that runs from one New York City hurricane to another. Other illnesses have to do with radiation poisoning, with Fukushima, with international presumably-capitalist conspiracies. Hypochondria connects up with a political persecution complex; bad phone service becomes a symptom of living at the end of history.

Calvin more or less disappears from the novel after his cameo appearance; the narrator tries to check up on him a couple of times and later wonders if he should use some of his book advance to bankroll a run of therapy for him. 10:04 isn’t the sort of lock-plotted novel that forces readers to question a fleeting appearance or digressive encounter – there’s enough wandering and intermittency that Calvin’s scene doesn’t seem too discrepant in the general scheme of things.

But still, I think there’s something to be read in Calvin’s quick appearance in and subsequent removal from the novel. In a sense, isn’t Calvin’s psychopathology very similar to that of the novel as a form – and in a sense, of Ben Lerner’s two novels in particular. In his first, Leaving the Atocha Station, we follow the inconclusive experiences of a young poet-cum-pothead as he messes with girls and doesn’t do his fellowship work, all leading up to… the terrorist bombing of the main train station in Madrid, an event totally out of proportion and sync with the foreground pseudo-plot. In 10:04, the same sort of situation obtains: framed by the two hurricanes that struck New York City in recent years, the novel itself traces out relatively banal plotlines drawn from the everyday life of literary Brooklyn. Will the narrator impregnate his friend? And what will become of his incipient romance with another woman as he tries to? Will the physiological deformity discovered in the early pages become symptomatic? What will he write his novel about?

While both Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 are carefully self-aware about the non-correlation between the banal foreground action and the cataclysmic backdrops, the simple fact of the juxatpositoning of the two elements in each case still begs a question about the relation between plot and context. Of course, this is what novels do – what they have always done. A doctor and his wife have a hard time in the rural France of the Second Empire. A woman is planning a party in London in the wake of the First World War. Two men wander Dublin as the world lurches toward the war and the empire toward its dissolution. Foreground and background, character and setting, everyday life and the workings of history – the novel as a form forces us to consider the relations between these elements.

Lerner, as I’ve said, is very self-aware about these issues – the text never forces the conjunctions, even seems ironically knowing about the forced nature of such line of thought that could read, for instance, the reproductive decision-making dilemmas of gentrifiers as somehow tantamount to the the specter of climate change. But that doesn’t prevent Lerner from bringing this minor character, this trouble graduate student, on stage as a sort of scapegoat – loaded with the sins or at least symptoms of the novel in which he is contained, or perhaps even the novel as a form in general – only to shuffle him off again almost immediately. Lerner’s conjunction of the personal and the macro-political belongs on the bookshelf, while Calvin’s belongs in a mental institution, or so the novel implicitly tells us.

After the exchange that I quoted above, Calvin reacts wildly in response to the narrator’s suggestion that he might seek some psychological help.

“Okay, wow. Wow. You want to pathologize me, too. I guess that’s your job. You represent the institution. The institution speaks through you. But let me ask you something”— I sized Calvin up physically; he was taller than I was, nearly as tall as the protester, but thin, almost lanky; I involuntarily visualized punching him in the throat if he attacked me— “can you look at me and say you think this,” and here he swept the air with his arm in a way that made “this” indicate something very large, “is going to continue? You deny there’s poison coming at us from a million points? Do you want to tell me these storms aren’t man- made, even if they’re now out of the government’s control? You don’t think the FBI is fucking with our phones? The language is just becoming marks, drawings of words, not words— you should know that as well as anybody. Or are you on drugs? Are you letting them regulate you?” He stood up so suddenly I flinched, then felt bad for flinching. “Sorry for wasting your time,” he said, maybe holding back tears, and stormed out of my office, forgetting his legal pad.

In a sense, isn’t the ‘institution’ speaking through the narrator and the story that he tells us as much that of the ‘literary novel’ as a form as any that Calvin might be thinking of. A regulatory message, a message that keeps an ‘appropriate’ perspective on things – one that gets on with vivid interest in the conventional workings of conventional lives, even if as it solemnly acknowledges that the shit may in fact be about to hit the fan. I generally think Lerner’s a smart enough novelist to sidestep this ethically and politically perilous position. But then again, the reactions of some of his readers provide evidence more in line with Calvin’s response. For instance, at the end of her gushing review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maggie Nelson writes that upon reading Lerner’s new novel,

Far from despair, I felt flooded with the sense that everything mattered, from meticulous descriptions of individual works of art to kissing the forehead of a passed-out intern to analyzing our political language to documenting the sensual details of our daily lives to bagging dried mangoes to the creation of the book I was holding in my hand to my deciding to spend some time writing a review of it.

In other words, despite the apocalyptic overlay, 10:04 more than anything else gave Nelson a revivified vision of her own demographically-appropriate and seemingly already-quite-comfortable daily life.

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October 1, 2014 at 4:13 pm

choose your own adventure: middlebrow mad libs

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Originalml

I went through a period as a boy when I was obsessed with Mad Libs. Were they a UK thing too – or was there something similar? Basically, the player is given a set of prompts for parts of speech, various types of words, and the like. These are then plugged into a prewritten story, and of course much non-sequiturism and absurd hilarity (if you’re 8 or 9 years old) occurs. It’s sort of a poorman’s Oulipo, a vulgar literary surrealism for kids.

Anyway, tomorrow is the first day of summer, so the blurbs and related PR materials for all the middle-to-higher middlebrow fiction is starting to flow through the social media sieves. And as I skim this stuff, it’s impossible for me not to get a sense that the writers / agents / publishers responsible for its positioning on the airport news agents’ shelves and the tables at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble marked with the cardboard palm tree aren’t playing their own version of literary Mad Libs.

A young (doctor/student/yoga instructor) has suffered through (a divorce/ a bereavement / a layoff / pancreatic cancer) and decides to visit (Nepal / Laos / Peru / inner city Detroit). There she meets a (Buddhist school teacher / flamengo instructor / holistic gynaecologist / homeless savant) who teaches her to enjoy (food / dance / sex / her “curves” / abstract art) and, thus, life again. Upon returning to (London / New York / the family manse) she meets a (stock brocker / surgeon / idealistic social worker) and almost loses love… but ultimately, in the end, finds it.

Of course, one could compose similar rubrics for the various subgenres of this sort of stuff (the post-English Patient war romance, the self-discovery memoir, raunchy post-chick-lit chick lit, etc). (And hey, if you care to, post your own versions in the comments!) And further, of course, the fact that you can do this part of what makes genres genres – you could do the same for science fiction, the nineteenth-century realist novel, mid-century American “outsider” fiction, whatever.

But still, there’s something infinitely depressing about the implicit psychological profiling of the potential reader that seems to be running behind the construction of these blurs and the books that they stand for.  Commercial publishers know their readers, I guess. Or at least they know the (ever fewer?) readers who are already buying their books. And these readers, it seems, at least according to the evidence available in the products on offer, stand at the book tables (or their html equivalents) going through a not very complex dance of identification and aspiration as they decide which book to purchase for their carry-on luggage or beach bag. Ah, that’s like me. That’s like me too. That’s not like me but I wish it were. Ooh, wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out like that… 

(I’ve written about this process of identification in relation to the cover art of such novels before.)

Eat,_Pray,_Love_–_Elizabeth_Gilbert,_2007

Take for instance the work that can stand as an avatar of the middle range of the middlebrow stuff just as Ian McEwan’s Saturday can stand for the upper reaches of the form: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a memoir, but it fits the rubric above so perfectly that it’s almost the platonic ideal of the genre – and undoubtedly has become a model that the book business looks to replicate over and over. Here’s a description of the work from wikipedia:

At 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was educated, had a home, a husband, and a successful career as a writer. She was, however, unhappy in her marriage and initiated a divorce. She then embarked on a rebound relationship that did not work out, leaving her devastated and alone. After finalizing her difficult divorce, she spent the next year traveling the world.

She spent four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (“Eat”). She spent three months in India, finding her spirituality (“Pray”). She ended the year in Bali, Indonesia, looking for “balance” of the two and found love (“Love”) in the form of a Brazilian businessman.

In this description, we can almost read the handwriting of the invisible hand that drives the publishing and marketing of such books: Our readers are almost all women, and what we all know about women is that women like to eat (even though they sometimes have to be coaxed into really going at it) and they like feelings and deepness and softcore “spirituality.” It’s even better if that leads (coaxes them into?) love and sex. It’s like a perfect dating experience – a dinner, followed by some deep conversation, and then, and only then, some sex –  extended into a self-discovery memoir! 

At any rate, what’s less interesting about all of this is to discover the venal cynicism of publishers and the vapid selection principles of some readers. It’s an old story, and not a particularly interesting – and perhaps not even entirely true – one. What’s more interesting, I think, is to consider, as I’m starting to do here, what we can make out of all that goes into the production of such products – especially at the spots where form intersects with baser motivations. That is, what I’m interested in is the semi-allegorical posture of the narratives to presumed customers lives, the socio-ideological substrate of the relations between the writing and the market, and what we might call, after Fredric Jameson, the nature of the political unconscious that somnolently calculates “Bali, Indonesia” as the reconciling synthesis of Italy and and India.

 

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June 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

march of the headless women / fictionality, character identification, and whateverness

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Interesting synchronictiy. The other day I was in a Waterstones and was stunned yet again at the fact that the “headless women” book covers are still proliferating. What are the “headless women” book covers? Well, take a look here or here or here. Or take a look at this one, which happened to be on display on the 3-for-2 rack at the Waterstones in question, and which was written by an author I’ve met a few times.

It’s pretty obvious what’s interesting / discomforting / grating about the proliferation of covers of this sort. Implicit in their ubiquity is a sense on publishers’ parts that female readers, when choosing a novel, want to be able to project themselves into the work, to occupy the place of the female protagonist. If the person pictured on the cover of the book were to possess a head, and in particular a face, this would somehow block the ability for them to do so: But I don’t have red hair! But my eyes aren’t that colour! My cheekbones aren’t at all like that! It’s notable that works aimed at male audiences don’t take the same tack – often foregoing the depiction of people on the cover altogether.

Pretty condescending, isn’t it? Unfortunately one has a sense that the publishers know what works, and wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t work to some degree. I’ve seen an argument on twitter – now lost to us, as it was months ago – in which a PR person for a publisher responded to criticism of the practice with something like “I know, I know – it’s awful. But what do you want us to do about it? The books won’t move off the shelves if we don’t.”

Depressing. But here’s the interesting part. It just so happens that I had assigned – and had to prepare to teach early this week – a fantastic essay by Catherine Gallagher called “The Rise of Fictionality,” which was published in Franco Moretti’s magisterial anthology on the novel. (Luckily for you – and for me as I rushed to get the students a copy of it – PUP has the essay on-line here.) The essay is a vivid and succinct historicization of the emergence of fiction as a category in eighteenth-century Britain, a category born out of divergence both from “factual” writing and (and here’s where the brilliance of the piece truly lies) “fantastical” writing as well.

I won’t go into all the nuances of the argument here – do yourself a favour and read the piece. But here’s a few paragraphs that seem especially relevant to the acephalous women of Waterstones:

That apparent paradox—that readers attach themselves to characters be­cause of, not despite, their fictionality—was acknowledged and discussed by eighteenth-century writers. As I have already mentioned, they noticed that the fictional framework established a protected affective enclosure that en­couraged risk-free emotional investment. Fictional characters, moreover, were thought to be easier to sympathize or identify with than most real peo­ple. Although readers were often called to be privileged and superior wit­nesses of protagonists’ follies, they were also expected to imagine themselves as the characters. “All joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of oth­ers,” Samuel Johnson explained, “is produced by an act of the imagination, that realizes the event however fictitious . . . by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate” (Johnson 1750). What seemed to make novelistic “others” outstanding candidates for such realiza­tions was the fact that, especially in contradistinction to the figures who pointedly referred to actual individuals, they were enticingly unoccupied. Because they were haunted by no shadow of another person who might take priority over the reader as a “real” referent, anyone might appropriate them. No reader would have to grapple with the knowledge of some real-world double or contract an accidental feeling about any actual person by making the temporary identification. Moreover, unlike the personae of tragedy or legend, novelistic characters tended to be commoners, who would fall be­neath the notice of history proper, and so they tended to carry little extratex­tual baggage. As we have noticed, they did carry the burden of the type, what Henry Fielding called the “species,” which he thought was a turntable for aiming reference back at the reader; a fictional “he” or “she” should re­ally be taken to mean “you.” But in the case of many novel characters, even the “type” was generally minimized by the requirement that the character escape from the categorical in the process of individuation. The fact that “le personnage . . . n’est personne” was thought to be precisely what made him or her magnetic.

Some recent critics are reviving this understanding and venturing to propose that we, like our eighteenth-century predecessors, feel things for characters not despite our awareness of their fictionality but because of it. Consequently, we cannot be dissuaded from identifying with them by re­minders of their nonexistence. We have plenty of those, and they configure our emotional responses in ways unique to fiction, but they do not diminish our feeling. We already know, moreover, that all of our fictional emotions are by their nature excessive because they are emotions about nobody, and yet the knowledge does not reform us. Our imagination of characters is, in this sense, absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing, but it is also constitutive of the genre, and it requires more explanation than the eighteenth-century commentators were able to provide.

That is to say, the “headlessness” of the fictional character, their availability to us because they are unblocked by connection to a “real person” and thus readily available for readerly identification, may be “absurd and (perhaps) legitimately embarrassing,” as are the images on the covers in the bookshop, but it is also one of the things that makes fiction what it is, and is what accounts for the special mental and emotional states that we experience as we read them.But to take this a step further (and here I am drawing out some of Gallagher’s arguments and taking them in a slightly different direction) it’s possible that reflections of Gallagher’s sort (and even the instinct catered to by the contemporary covers) point us to different sensibility about the ideology of fiction.

In short, we are made anxious about the protagonism of fiction, the structural mandate that it forces or soothes us into identification with the autonomous or semi-autonomous individual as such, that it serves as an advertisement for intricate interiority and in so doing may urge us away from the consideration of the exterior. But if it is the case that the fictionality of the fictional character is grounded on a certain availability, a certain openness, even a certain whateverness, we might be licensed to think that the ideological underpinnings of fiction are far more complex than conventional (literary Marxist) wisdom suggests. Rather than a cult of personality, fiction, at base, might start to seem a space for the emergence of impersonality – and rather than simply markers of readerly solipsism and commercial cynicism, the book covers above might suggest a nascently radical instinct lurking just below the surface of the Waterstones transaction.

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January 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Posted in agamben, fiction, novel, whatever

3 for 2 for you: james miller’s sunshine state

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Hint: you might want to get yourself down to your local Waterstones* and grab yourself a copy of this. It’s on 3 for 2, so the price is right. It’s post-Ballardian eco-catastrophe cut to follow the lines of Heart of Darkness – just right for reading in the here and now. Perfect for the beach, the bath, the garret, the park, the couch, the sweaty summer bed, the well-worn scholar’s desk or anywhere else you might care to read it. And if you come by the Fitz afterwork on selected days of the week with your copy, I will, I promise, secure you an autograph from the esteemed author himself. **

* Obviously you can also buy it from your local independent. I think the author gets more if you do, you get ethical-hipster points, either way James Daunt will flourish even more than he’s flourishing, blossoms will bloom, etc etc. Or just grab it on 3 for 2. That’s the beauty – it’s your call.

** If you buy me a Taddy Lager, as Alpine is out of stock for the summer. But it’s Sam Smith’s, and therefore only £2.41.

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July 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Posted in crisis, dystopia, novel

what novels are for (according to conservative columnists)

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Slightly unfair to throw one columnist’s words from 2011 up against another’s from 1988. But this is, it seems to me, interesting to think about. Ross Douthat today in the NYT:

But chances are that Loughner’s motives will prove as irreducibly complex as those of most of his predecessors in assassination. Violence in American politics tends to bubble up from a world that’s far stranger than any Glenn Beck monologue — a murky landscape where worldviews get cobbled together from a host of baroque conspiracy theories, and where the line between ideological extremism and mental illness gets blurry fast.

This is the world that gave us Oswald and Bremer. More recently, it’s given us figures like James W. von Brunn, the neo-Nazi who opened fire at the Holocaust Museum in 2009, and James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel last summer to express his displeasure over population growth. These are figures better analyzed by novelists than pundits: as Walter Kirn put it Saturday, they’re “self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.”

George Will in 1988 on Don DeLillo’s Libra, via here, and its presentation of Lee Harvey Oswald:

DeLillo says he is just filling in “some of the blank spaces in the known record.” But there is no blank space large enough to accommodate, and not a particle of evidence for, DeLillo’s lunatic conspiracy theory. In the book’s weaselly afterword, he says he has made “no attempt to furnish factual answers.” But in a New York Times interview he says, “I purposely chose the most obvious theory because I wanted to do justice to historical likelihood.”

History, says a DeLillo character, is “the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.” Of course. “They.” That antecedentless pronoun hants the fevered imaginations of paranoiacs. For conspiracy addicts like DeLillo, the utter absence of evidence, after 25 years of search, proves not that there was no conspiracy but that the conspiracy was diabolically clever.

It is well to be reminded by books like this of the virulence of the loathing some intellectuals feel for American society, and of the frivolous thinking that fuels it.

Of course, neither of them are wrong about what novels generally and reflexively do when it comes to ethical questions. Contextualization and the relativism that comes of it, speculation to fill in the holes in the story where the assignment of goodness or evilness might otherwise fill the blank – all very much a part of the game, and you basically have to derange the form a bit in order to do otherwise with them.

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January 10, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Posted in america, novel, Politics

“this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock”: josipovici strikes a blow

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Was out for a drink with a colleague in Farringdon the other day and when he went in to buy us another round I picked up the copy of the Guardian that someone had left on the table. It was open to this, a media-scruff rendition of Josipovici’s new What Ever Happened to Modernism. Fantastic stuff:

“We are in a very fallow period,” Josipovici said, calling the contemporary English novel “profoundly disappointing – a poor relation of its ground-breaking modernist forebears”.

He said: “Reading Barnes, like reading so many other English writers of his generation – Martin Amis, McEwan – leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner. The irony which at first made one smile, the precision of language which was at first so satisfying, the cynicism which at first was used only to puncture pretension, in the end come to seem like a terrible constriction, a fear of opening oneself up to the world.

“I wonder, though, where it came from, this petty-bourgeois uptightness, this terror of not being in control, this schoolboy desire to boast and to shock.” Such faults were less generally evident in Irish, American, or continental European writing, he added.

Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy remained more avant-garde than the so-called avant-garde today, Josipovici argued.

“An author like Salman Rushdie takes from Sterne all the tricks without recognising the darkness underneath. You feel Rushdie’s just showing off rather than giving a sense of genuine exploration.”

Was hard at the moment not to fantasize that the reason the paper was on the bar table and left open to that page in particular was because one of the authors in question or at least one of their acolytes had settled in for an early afternoon restorative, flipped through to this page, and then left in haste and in a tremendous huff….

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August 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Posted in josipovici, novel

reality hunger’s performative contradiction

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One of the only good things to happen to me over the last ten days was to happen upon a discarded review copy of David Shields’s forthcoming Reality Hunger near the office recycling bin. I want to review it myself, and will try to sort that out in the next few days, so I’m not going to say everything I have to say on here and right now. I can’t understand the breathless blurbage it’s received. I know what blurbs are and aren’t, believe me believe me, but still. I should have a chance to ask one of the Major Blurbbers what he was thinking at an Xmas party in a couple of hours. We’ll see.

Just for now: one of the things that Shields does in this book is copy other people’s stuff seamlessly into the book without attribution. Well, almost without attribution. There’s an appendix that starts as follows:

This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm thee publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages xxx-xxx by cutting along the dotted line.

Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do – all of us – though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Stop; don’t read any farther.

Lovely – lots of us agree in principle with all of that. But if reality cannot be copyrighted, Reality Hunger still can be… and is. Right at the front of the book, there it is: Copyright © David Shields, 2010. In this day and age when all sorts of alternative models like creative commons and copyleft are in practice along with alternative means of distribution, it does seem like Shields’s offering is skewed from the start by this rather glaring performative contradiction. Technically, even in copying the above into my post, I am breaking the injunction at the front of the review copy not to “reproduce before publication of the finished book” any of its contents. I’m slightly tempted to start a blog where I post the book as a whole, one of its numbered entries a day. Hmmm…. I’m going to wait by the phone for those Random House lawyers to call.

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December 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm