Joy Williams

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Joy Williams 1944–

American novelist and short story writer.

In Williams's fiction, the ordinary events of daily life are susceptible to bizarre turns of horror and individuals are lost in their private selves, unable to comprehend the forces which shape their lives. Although Williams occasionally alleviates her bleak vision with humor, a sense of hopelessness and despair remains central to her work. Her first novel, State of Grace (1973), was hailed by critics as the work of a promising talent. While faulted for its lack of structural cohesiveness, the novel impressed critics with its powerful evocation of a fictional world.

The Changeling (1978), Williams's second novel, disappointed most critics. Some reviewers again commended Williams's surrealistic intensity, but they generally considered her treatment of the fine line between psychosis and reality unconvincing and her character development inadequate. Williams's first collection of short stories, Taking Care (1982), received mixed reviews. Although two of the stories are affirmations of love, most of them depict unsuccessful marriages, ineffective communication, and aimless, encumbered characters who fail to gain insight into their lives or their selves. While critics generally view this as an uneven collection, they praise Williams's crisp writing and her skillful representation of the characters' subjective realities.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)

Gail Godwin

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The fated heroine of this bleak but beautifully-crafted first novel ["State of Grace"] may well be the final, perfected archetype of all the "sad ladies," that formidably fashionable sorority which has impinged on the past decade or so of American fiction. But I'll remember Kate Jackson; I'll reread her stubbornly depressing story, picking out those cleverly-hidden but ever-present clues of grace. Kate is no simple "slice-of-despair" character; her sad story becomes, through the author's skill and intention, transsubstantiated into significant myth. This book is neither a self-indulgent journal of despair, nor journalism of despair. It is premeditated, articulate, artistic—a novel. (p. 2)

Gail Godwin, "Her Heart Belongs to Daddy," in The New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1973, pp. 2-3.

Rust Hills

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State of Grace is a "difficult" novel, hard to get into and even then not easy to stay with. Williams is not [Jacqueline] Susann, after all. Time shifts are sometimes confusing, and the plotting is in parts outlandish. I once attempted a plot summary, and it sounded like Tolstoy's vicious précis of King Lear. The novel was written some years ago, and some of Williams' best stories have been written since. It may be that she is at her best as a short-story writer, or it may be that she's learned how to write a novel by writing this; time will tell. Clearly parts of it don't seem to fit, have little or no apparent relation to the whole or other parts.

But open the novel to virtually any page and you'll instantly see it—a kind of strange phosphorescent style describing disquieting, dark and funny goings-on. Sentences are brilliant, gorgeous, surprising, which is strange because Williams uses the simple declarative sentence almost exclusively; I doubt if there's more than one subordinate clause per page in the whole book. This syntax somehow enhances the probing, prowling restlessness of intention and method. Not easy to read, perhaps; but also not easy to forget. (p. 26)

For despite the lack of cohesiveness of the novel, and especially if it is read in conjunction with her short stories, Williams does create a unique "world" through the interaction of her unique fictional elements—unpredictable character, bizarre event, savage description, raunchy dialogue, and so on—in the way any fine writer creates a world. We easily recognize "Hemingway's world," "Fitzgerald's world," and so on, but there are as many such worlds as there are successful authors. In terms of form, such worlds are mostly created by language, but in terms of content they are essentially a vision. Geoff Ward, editor of Audience, once said to me of Williams' work, "She sees things no one else ever sees, thank God."… Over and over, in brilliant set-pieces of thoroughly convincing but truly crazy dialogue, her characters show themselves to be obsessed by all the wrong things. One laughs, as is intended—but nervously, conscious of some menace implicit in all this derangement.

No writer springs full-blown in a first novel, and there are recalls here—of John Hawkes and of John Cheever and of others—but it is distinctively Williams' world we enter in this intriguing first novel, an absolute guarantee of extraordinary work to come. (p. 28)

Rust Hills, in a review of "State of Grace," in Esquire, Vol. LXXX, No. 1, July, 1973, pp. 26, 28.

David Bromwich

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[In State of Grace] Joy Williams is pouring forth a tepid Creative Writing ooze which has become stock in trade at the universities, and which is strictly a habit of the permanently would-be novelist. Here are a few of her more wonderfully worked-over set pieces: "Almost all arms and noons and lips and anger are the same and love." "I don't look at all pregnant and never would have thought it of myself, but I've been told firmly that it's so. I peed into a paper cup and now I know."… And in a metaphor that deliberately mixes the organs of speech and sex, Miss Williams has gone well beyond John Updike at his coyest:

I want to have him love me. The fact that he does already troubles both of us. I prop the pillow behind my back and begin a conversation. The room is close. I've spilled some scent and it's in the carpet. I open my lips and the words enter my furred mouth.

Miss Williams has not understood that whatever tries to be prose-poetry ends up with the worst of both worlds, and is at once ersatz prose and ersatz poetry.

The heroine of this novel is Kate—I almost said Kate Williams. But, though there are touches that look autobiographical, one cannot be sure. The novel brings Kate from her pregnancy to the birth of her child, with generous flashbacks to her religious childhood and her early free-living and free-loving adulthood. I will only say that as far as one can separate style from content, the first-person protagonist from the author who watches over her, Kate appears to share certain characteristics with her creator. She is self-indulgent and not obviously intelligent, and she stands in a passive relation to her experience. Just so does Miss Williams answer to the muse of an impersonal and artificially heightened style. When the author gets down to earthly affairs and listens to a secondary character, she simply does not hear the way he would sound. But then, as a backwoods type in her novel most ungracefully avers, "That's something which ain't easy at all!" Since there is no movement from Kate the child to the Kate who can have a child, the desert spaces of plot demand no summary. Though the religious episodes may have been deeply felt by the author, again one cannot be sure. "The Reverend is talking about the grave, how deep and insatiable it is, just like the barren womb. It's never satisfied, he is saying." Yes, thank you, we caught "insatiable" the first time around but are glad nevertheless to learn that Miss Williams knows what it means. Leaving aside the stylistic density, however, even the conceit which it supports is silly. In what sense is a grave or a barren womb insatiable? Like many of Miss Williams's metaphors, this one gives the impression of being old and sick with use and, at the same time, bad in a new way. Actually, the off-realism of this book—the air of disbelief—is less than calculated. The author just has not taught herself to write continuous prose. Of course, the worst feature of such a performance is that it holds the world of experience not too close up but too far away. Most sins are pardonable in a first novel, but perhaps not all. We cease to be concerned whether or not Miss Williams is true to herself, her manner in reaching the goal is so patently false. (pp. 85-6)

David Bromwich, in a review of "State of Grace," in Commentary, Vol. 56, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 85-6.

John Agar

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Kate is the anesthetic woman [in State of Grace] whose life is too painful for her to face, who sees with a child's eye focused dissociatively on the foreground, who wants to be released from the burden of her selfhood. (p. 106)

"Everything I touch hurts," Kate says. But she touches only small things, for she can approach her suffering and humiliation only indirectly: through splinters in her hand or fables or half transmogrified memories. Williams' accomplishment is that of having dramatized the inertia of a mind too weary even to feel, much less resist suffering. Like a mosaic, State of Grace is full of color and intimations of movement, but without movement, and … Williams uses a miniaturist's art to achieve effects which are not small. (pp. 106-07)

As in [her previously published short story] "Tripping," Williams relies on her control of rhythm and on the judicious use of detail to characterize the mind which is affected by narrated events. And because Williams' art is that of nuance, traumatic events are often elided—because they are too painful for a character to face—or undergo a sea-change in the character's sensibility. (p. 107)

But this kind of narrative also has soft spots. Williams' talent, at this point in her career, evidently is for introspective first person narrative, or narrative at least through the eyes of a character. In State of Grace she is aware of her strength and exploits it. But there are less satisfactory sections of the novel, particularly those … in which Kate must speak to "Daddy" and "Daddy" must reply. Indeed, Williams would be at a disadvantage here anyhow. The figure of the hellfire preacher who is sexually possessive—not to mention those of vacuous sorority girls and thick-waisted and thick-headed southern cops—come to her hand ready made. There is not a whole lot anyone can do with them. Hence "Daddy" is not really an impressive character until the middle of State of Grace, where Williams beautifully describes him through the eyes of the child-Kate.

Nor does Grady [Kate's husband] often talk like a believable person. This is somewhat surprising in that "Tripping" shows that Williams has an excellent ear for dialogue. Yet even that story reaches its resolution not through any confrontation between characters, but by a simple, perhaps awkward, shift of focus…. This problem conceded, however, State of Grace's successes still easily overshadow its faults…. [State of Grace] is a powerful and lovely first novel. (pp. 107-08)

John Agar, in a review of "State of Grace," in Carolina Quarterly, Vol. XXV, No. 3, Fall, 1973, pp. 106-08.

Anatole Broyard

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["State of Grace"] was a startlingly good novel, and it pains me to have to say that "The Changeling" is a startlingly bad one. Miss Williams likes to take large risks, to try to go where no one has gone before. She is more drastic in her approach to character than any other novelist I can think of who is writing today. In "State of Grace," she survives the risks by the skin of her teeth and her narrow escapes have the effect of intensifying the book even further. But harsh as it may sound, I find that almost nothing works in "The Changeling." I admire the first book so much that I am tempted to take the position that only a very talented person could write as badly as Miss Williams does in her second novel.

The eccentricity of the characters in "State of Grace" seems to arise out of a surplus of truth. They are so real, so close to the bone of feeling, that it is hard to get used to them. They are natural to an unnatural degree. Miss Williams's heroine, Kate, has answers to questions no one would ever think to ask. Pearl, in "The Changeling," has no answers, and to questions no one would want to ask. While Kate transcends the natural, Pearl falls below it….

"The Changeling" suggests to me that two things ought to be done about avant-garde writing today. Readers ought to actively question its assumption that a character's mental disturbance is a symbol for a disturbed world. It is not invariably true; sometimes a character's aberration is a circumscribed function that concerns no more than two or three people. To try to stretch it to embrace our entire culture is either pretentious, lazy or simply mistaken.

And then I believe it would be a salutary exercise for both reader and writer if we begin to take the rhetoric of the avantgarde literally, to assume that the words on the page mean what the dictionary says they do. When Miss Williams writes. "Oh to bring back the days when stars spoke at the mouths of caves," I feel entitled, perhaps even obliged, to ask, "Which days were those?" When she writes, speaking of Pearl, that "she was young but some day she would be covered with ants," I want to know how the author can tell that she will be covered with ants and how I am expected to employ this information….

When I read of the children's "condor eyes" or of "the tremendous human darkness," I am not going to give the author the benefit of the doubt. There have been too many doubts and too many benefits, and perhaps Miss Williams has fallen victim to them.

Anatole Broyard, "New Joy Williams Novel," in The New York Times, June 3, 1978, p. 17.

Alice Adams

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[Joy Williams] is a talented, skillful writer. She evokes the feel and smell of certain moments with an eerie precision…. Certain characters, too, in her fiction, are entirely original and absolutely credible…. The evidence suggests that Miss Williams could and probably will write an excellent novel, which "The Changeling," unfortunately, is not.

Its action, more or less (Miss Williams does not exactly spell out her narrative), is this: A young woman, Pearl, is picked up while shoplifting by a man named Walker and taken to his family's 20,000-acre offshore (what shore is not specified) island, which they have owned for 100 years. Five semi-related and some unrelated children populate the island. Pearl bears a child named Sam to Walker, and then, disturbed by odd goings-on between the adults and children on the island …, she runs away—to be re-kidnapped, as it were, by Walker. On the plane back to the island, Pearl glimpses an unnatural-looking baby in the arms of a very old woman. The plane crashes; its survivors are hospitalized, and Pearl is handed a baby whose first gesture is a savage bite, tearing her breast. Walker is dead. With her new-old baby, Pearl again takes up life on the island. From then on, roughly the remaining three-fourths of the novel, events are murkier.

Pearl sits around the pool with the children, and she drinks a lot…. (p. 6)

Various sexual acts, mostly "unnatural," including a murderous copulation between two praying mantises, are observed and commented upon by Pearl and the children. (Miss Williams has a lurid sexual imagination, potentially comic, which is largely wasted here.) There are hints of animal worship, of children becoming animals, lots of dreams of animals…. Then, one terrible night, all the children seem to be lost, in a landscape of beetles and lizards. There is a bloody attack by some unidentified animals, and the book ends in a cataclysm of run-on sentences, about animals and children, sleep and death and change.

Trying to puzzle all this out, one has the unsettling sense of an unfamiliar mythology (Hindu? Norse?), perhaps of someone else's dream. What do all those animals mean? "Once, in the very earliest time, a human being could become an animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being." Does this sentence, occurring mid-novel, describe what has happened at the end, or has Pearl gone crazy? Or is she just drunk?

This borderland between psychosis and reality, the land of private mythology of the "grotesque," is dangerously tempting to writers: so easy to do badly, almost impossible to do well…. (pp. 6, 17)

If we don't know quite enough about a central character to be moved by his or her possible madness, or quite enough about the external events of the story to be sure what is actually going on, the result is an unconvincing and ultimately unsatisfactory novel, instead of the very good one that I believe Joy Williams could write. (p. 17)

Alice Adams, "Someone Else's Dream." in The New York Times Book Review, July 2, 1978, pp. 6, 17.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

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Joy Williams, in [The Changeling], descends from the best of recent innovators in fiction. Like Cortázar and Márquez, she has a surrealistic intensity matched by an admirable control of word and metaphor. Like Pynchon, she keeps us guessing: does Pearl suffer a nervous breakdown or is she the straight woman in a psychotic universe? Williams lapses into experimental form only in the last two, unpunctuated, chapters, certainly the weakest…. But the ferocity of Williams's imagination makes the choppiness of her sentences beside the point…. [The] witty and horrifying Changeling establishes Williams as a major contemporary novelist.

A review of "The Changeling," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 4 (Autumn, 1978), p. 134.

Patricia Meyer Spacks

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[The impossibility of accurate memory is dealt with] in the increasingly surrealistic account of The Changeling, which retreats altogether from the public realm into a self-indulgent phantasmagoria of privacy. The ambiguities of its plot reflect its explicit insistence on the hopelessness of attempts to know. Pearl, the protagonist, twenty years old at the outset, has trouble discerning meaning in her experience. "Nothing in her life had prepared Pearl for significance. Each moment that occurred lay mute within her, a buried stone, contained from and irrelevant to herself, an event with neither premonition nor consequence." Moreover, she cannot remember properly…. Pearl's interest in story creates the protean shapes of [her past]. Around her, others invent, remember, enact disturbing stories. Her own life follows a plot whose outlines she cannot grasp…. She lives with her husband's brother and an ever-changing collection of children on a strange island. She does not understand the people among whom she lives, nor does the reader—for whom, however, it hardly matters, so contrived are characters and happenings alike. The stories the children tell, which gradually come to control reality, concern human beings and animals and the relation between them, a matter which also preoccupies Pearl, given to wondering about how men evolve from lower forms or vice versa. It's all a problem of appearance and reality—a problem college sophomores typically discover with wonder as a fertile device for filling up their essays about philosophy, history, literature, just about anything. Joy Williams has the genuine sophomoric vision. (pp. 668-69)

Pearl may have problems about significance, but … the novel's narrator feels no shyness about offering frequent overblown announcements of meaning. Lavish statements about story, memory, appearance, the changeability of the past, prepare for the ambiguous ending, in which either all the children turn to animals and kill the grown-ups or Pearl goes crazy and believes this to have happened. The novel has proceeded from the flat, tough, Joan Didion-ish prose of its early sequences … to a dreary unpunctuated stream of consciousness…. The stylistic shift corresponds to the change in focus from outer to inner events, but … it also reflects unsure novelistic purpose. Neither memory nor imagination, The Changeling insists, tells the truth; the arbitrariness of fictional technique reflects the arbitrariness of meaning. Memory here makes nothing permanent; the absence of belief in the possibility of even personal preservation of the past—what person? what past?—expresses itself in a novel which, despite its cloudy grandiosity, constantly reminds us that novels don't, can't, matter. (p. 669)

Patricia Meyer Spacks, "Necessities of Memory," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, Winter, 1978–79, pp. 663-76.∗

David Quammen

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[Joy Williams's "Taking Care" contains some] wonderfully crisp writing and patches of bleak humor that made me guffaw. Social disjunction and the discontinuity of relationships are … chief concerns, with most of the stories in "Taking Care" focused on the imperfect efforts of husbands and wives trying marriage for the second or third time, and on the children surviving (in various degrees of disability) from the earlier attempts. Also dogs: There are many waifish canines from these broken homes, all of them portrayed with high sympathy and most cast as important secondary characters. Joy Williams has dogs the way John Irving has bears. And in fact Miss Williams seems to judge her people largely on these two bases: whether or not they can make a better second marriage and whether they get along well with dogs. The criteria are probably sounder than most.

But again the state of affairs, and of marriages, as seen by Miss Williams, is not cheerful. "By the time they were in Manhattan," she says in one story, "they were arguing. They had been married for eleven years. Both had had brief marriages before. They could argue about anything." With variations on the number eleven, this could apply to almost every couple in the book. Miss Williams depicts failing communication and death of love and willful emotional brutality and betrayal, all at epidemic levels….

In even her dreariest pieces. Miss Williams is consistently percipient and witty. But she ends the collection triumphantly with a pair of stories, very different from each other, that are both masterly creations and also—pleasant surprise—moving affirmations.

"Taking Care" portrays an aging preacher named Jones, a steadfastly loving man who assumes the roles of mother and father to his infant granddaughter while the child's mother (his daughter) sows her oats in Mexico and his own cherished wife is dying of leukemia. "Breakfast" describes a watershed morning in the lives of four beings finding each other: a young woman named Liberty, her half-blind German shepherd called Clem, a neglected 7-year-old neighbor boy named Teddy, and Charlie, a hulking Cajun alcoholic….

These final two stories, one a delicate treasure, the other over-flowing with mad comic energy, are alone worth the price of the book. (p. 34)

David Quammen, "Women in Crisis," in The New York Times Book Review, February 14, 1982, pp. 11, 34.∗

Joyce Kornblatt

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With prose of indiscriminate radiance, Williams creates a landscape for [the tales in Taking Care] at once geographic and spiritual….

These stories seem closest in spirit to the fictions of Flannery O'Connor and Joyce Carol Oates. Madness, murder, the surrender of hope become commonplace rather than extreme behaviors, and even those characters who sustain the ability to love seem perplexed, even encumbered, by their triumph….

Williams' characters lack grounding, and the stories purpose-fully withhold any larger frames of reference which might accommodate, explain, help contain the formlessness of subjective life. In Taking Care, the world seems to exist only as each character imagines it to be. No person's reality is like another's, each man and woman and child dreams his or her own life. In "The Shepherd," a dog breeder observes: "We are all asleep and dreaming, you know. If we could actually comprehend our true position, we would not be able to bear it, we would have to find a way out." Whereas the characters in O'Connor and Oates tales move precisely to that comprehension of their true position, the people in Williams' stories seldom get that far. They remain inchoate. Death itself fails to jolt them into awareness and if it does, they sink again even more deeply into their private worlds. In these stories people do not change; they simply exist in the ongoing mysteries, tawdry or pure, that are their lives.

This vision is both comforting and disturbing, and one cannot leave Joy Williams' work without deep ambivalence. As in all myths—and these stories are modern myths—we are connected again to what is elemental. However horrific, the primal dramas speak to our yearning for what is authentic, for what exists beneath the name-brand patina, the media polish, the intellectual armor that defines and distorts our age. Transcending religious and political systems of belief, Williams speaks to us from a plane of pure feeling. Like fine music, these stories circumvent the intellect; Williams seems to make the works themselves transparent and we gaze directly into the souls of her characters. This opportunity for communion—with the writer as a kind of spiritual medium—is one of the gifts of good fiction….

Yet the refusal of most of these stories to take us beyond states of feeling into conscious awareness, even change, leaves a reader disquieted. What can one believe in if people lose the will to believe, if they forget how to do it, if they can no longer manage it? Instead of being a communal solace, faith turns into a solitary ordeal, the dreamer alone forever in his or her own dream. Jones, the preacher [in "Taking Care"], "is gaunt with belief." Yet the title story suggests that he must persist in spite of his doubt and exhaustion. His wife dying, his daughter lost to him, Jones leaps yet again in his life over despair into the delusion of hope. "For insurance purposes, Jones' wife is brought out to the car in a wheelchair. She is thin and beautiful. Jones is grateful and confused. He has a mad wish to tip the orderly. Have so many years really passed? Is this not his wife, his love, fresh from giving birth?"

Of course, we know that it is not. He is hallucinating, dreaming with his eyes opened. But his delusion empowers him and we support him in his fabrication. It is redemptive. It imposes meaning on a world infinitely indifferent to his needs. In one of the few rebellions in this volume against the world's fierce neutrality, "Jones helps his wife up the steps to the door. Together they enter the shining rooms." In these fragile gestures of Taking Care—a sick woman leaning on her husband's arm, a wife catching sight of "her little family," during a tense vacation, a girl mourning the loss of her dog—we glimpse, merely glimpse, an order of being that eschews randomness, that ascribes value, that insists on love in the face of destructiveness.

Joyce Kornblatt, "Madness, Murder and the Surrender of Hope," in Book World—The Washington Post, March 21, 1982, p. 4.

Brina Caplan

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Taking Care, story by story and incident by incident, withdraws meaning from the lives it represents. In each case, what remains is a gem of despair, worked into the shape of finality by skillful sleights of hand.

Williams's characters usually live in the suburbs or the small coastal towns of Florida and New England. They are divorced or remarried, in their mid 20s or 30s, the parents of small children. There are exceptions…. On the whole, though, Williams focuses on ordinary moments in familiar lives. Ordinary moments, as she conceives them, are the most vulnerable to horror….

In prose as coldly intense as fluorescent lighting, Williams displays the wares of everyday life, a collection of objects that in the aggregate exert pressure on her characters, urging them toward madness…. Williams's men and women find themselves suddenly stranded in the surreal, like shoppers in a no-exit supermarket. And the goods banked up in aisles around them have their own frightening, inhuman order—an order that trivializes human experience….

At times it seems that madness will culminate in a superb sanity; that is, by negation, the lives of Williams's characters will define some essential good missing from a world encumbered with goods. Regrettably, Williams uses her narrative skill to another end, to make all sources of suffering appear equally mysterious and all sources of reparation equally futile. For example, in Taking Care, ties of familiarity or family are as easily slipped as knots tied in butter…. In Williams's world, the cruelties of contemporary folkways ultimately have no more pattern than mechanical or natural disasters—death by automobile, heart failure or anaphylactic shock. All losses are equally disrupting and equally random.

One of Williams's characters, Jenny, a small child haunted by visions, announces to her nursery school teacher that "the crayons are dead, the swings are dead." For her, a private debate with pain leads to compelling equations that nonetheless falsify reality, Jenny says

that she has no toys, that she lives with machinery she cannot run, that she lives in a house with no windows, no view of the street, that she lives with strangers.

Jenny shares her conclusion of victimization with other central characters in Taking Care and her method of deriving it with Williams herself—for not only character but author deny the consoling possibilities of home and work, solitude and company, family and friends. Perhaps, also like Jenny, Joy Williams conducts a private debate in which the satisfaction of balancing arguments at zero exceeds the pleasure of arriving at certain sums. In any event, the result of her imagining is a world brilliantly rendered and simultaneously nullified—without doubt "its own place." (p. 502)

Brina Caplan, "Mind Games," in The Nation, Vol. 234, No. 16, April 24, 1982, pp. 500-02.∗

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