Laurie Sheck’s hybrid novel Island of the Mad arrives in paperback on September 12, 2017, after an original publishing date of December 2016 by Counterpoint Press. She is also the author of A Monster’s Notes (Knopf, 2009, included in “10 Best Fictions of the Year” by Entertainment Weekly) and five books of poetry, one of which was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize (Willow Grove, Knopf, 1998).
In Island of the Mad, Ambrose, a hunch-backed scanner of books, pursues a lost notebook in Venice. Characters emerge in the scope of this island, and as in the philosophy of Bakhtin, mingle their thoughts in dialogue with each other. They include Frieda from The Master and Margarita and plague victims; Pontius Pilate in partnership with his dog; and a woman, fatally ill with sleeplessness, who desires to hear her beloved friend read out loud from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.
As in Laurie’s other works, her writing style is not constrained by expected conventions. She tells her story using familiar elements in new forms, with attention given to the full experience of the reader. Pages of her novels include volumes of white space, words crossed out, and time cycling, all creating a choreographic tension and a rising of unexpected emotion in the process of examining realities.
Laurie and I discussed her work at her NYC apartment in March 2017 and then corresponded over email near the date of Island of the Mad’s paperback reprint. Previously, I was her student in the New School MFA Creative Writing Program.
Christine Sang (Rail): The process of writing involves sending out your novel; it returns to you as a galley, you revisit the story and rewrite it, you let go of it when it’s published, and now it comes back to you again in the form of a paperback being released this week. Laurie, how has the spirit of the book stayed with you?
Laurie Sheck: I have found with the hybrids that the characters stay with me as presences and voices. I remember things they said; I remember what they felt at certain points, as when in A Monster’s Notes, for instance, the Monster clairvoyantly stands at Mary Shelley’s bedside when she’s ill with smallpox: What would she have felt if I died? Who would have watched over her, kept vigil in his mind as she lay in the shadows or looked in the mirror at what she thought of as her ruined face, her young husband long dead, her children in their unmarked graves? Who would have remembered her small hands, how smooth they’d been and waiting, as she lay in that small room fiercely burning? In her book she hadn’t killed me. Was there some way she wanted to release me? For every stab she gave, she also had a wound. I knew this. I thought of her hurt skin, and her mouth, that place of speech, so blistered and raw no words could come out. Weren’t words what she lived by, words what held her to the earth and made her who she was? No words, not a single one, could come out.
And, yes, they finally had to take the book away from me. I was changing things up to the very last minute until they came to take it to the printer.
Rail: It’s a cycle, but in your case it looks to me like a spiral in which you get closer to the center each time.
Sheck: Each book has its own idiosyncratic, partly mysterious way of coming into being—of traversing time and space. With A Monster’s Notes I basically wrote it straight through, even though at each juncture, I didn’t know ahead of time what was coming. After I completed it I went back to the beginning and fleshed a few thing things out. I also went through the whole thing tightening wherever I could, taking out hundreds of ands, etc. Island of the Mad had a different history. I finished the book and handed it in to Knopf, my long-time publisher. That was in September. I waited until May for a meeting with the editor. It soon became clear that Knopf wouldn’t do the book—not because the writing was deficient in any way but because my writing was no longer classifiable as poetry, and I was on their poetry list. The assessment was that as fiction, the book wouldn’t be profitable. It had been my great joy to find my work moving—first with A Monster’s Notes and then with this new one—into a hybrid realm I had no name for. It pained me enormously that the upshot of all that was that for the first time in decades, I had no publisher. As the book was sent around, it became evident that publishers didn’t know what to make of it aside from recognizing the quality of the writing. There were no others like it, really, none to compare it to, none to reassure a sale force with by making positive comparisons. I was reminded of a list I had seen by David Markson of the fifty-four rejections his wonderful Wittgenstein’s Mistress had gotten, along with the rejecting editors’ brief comments—“Brilliant/ Classy-No.” “Spectacular. No.” “Brilliant, 25 years ahead of its time. No.” “Too brilliant.” Those are actual quotes. Things like that. Finally Jack Shoemaker at Counterpoint took my book. I had admired him from a distance for years, so it was very meaningful to me.
Still, I had gone through those three years, and they had seared me, and so when I turned back to the manuscript of Island of the Mad, I found there were new layers of thinking in me, new angles, glistenings of pain, wonderings, assessments, and they entered not only the characters but the book’s linguistic texture. Rhythms altered, slowed, and swerved at times with jagged mournfulness, at other times grew sharper, urgent, feverish. I sewed in more nodes of connections like burnt threads.
Rail: The characters and language both use this spiraling as structural movement. It’s very exciting.
Sheck: I set little word-fires, then let them go underground only to emerge fifty or one hundred pages later. Things a reader probably wouldn’t consciously notice, but they’d be at work there nevertheless. At one point toward the end of the book, I created a new page consisting entirely of sentences and phrases from the 200-plus pages that preceded it. It was like music. I worked through many weeks, many nights of those without sleeping, and I felt the book flare, turn more specific, scorched, swerve in places, deepen.
Rail: Reading it for me, was like collecting these spirals which spin outward in thought, yet pull and tug at the physicality of breath it takes to live. The voices become very real, a truth.
Sheck: I’m not sure I would use the word truth. But I would say the real. I am interested in a documentary approach. In fact-based writing. But I am not writing non-fiction. I am creating an emotional world. At the particle physics laboratory at CERN they create particles then trap them in a collider and whirl them around at near the speed of light, causing collisions that generate further particles. They want to trap antimatter. Most of the trapped particles annihilate themselves against the collider’s walls. But not all. Writing is analogous in a way—pressure is brought to bear on characters, situations, reality, matter—they can be fictional or historical or a mix. What matters is not if they ever existed as people with “real” biographies and names, but if their thoughts, feelings, perceptions take on the coloring of reality. Most of the non-fictional “real” is invisible in any case—I can’t see your thoughts or feelings, and you can’t see mine, yet they’re as real as our visible skin.
Rail: You quote from a letter written by Dostoevsky, “Writers don’t invent or fantasize but document what is.” On the next page, you layer blurring eyes, a meeting between Titian and Frieda, a red moon and the small roughnesses of an unmendable pock-marked notebook. The juxtaposition creates wonder.
Sheck: Life is, reality is, very strange.
Rail: You quote him again: ‘“What most people regard as fantastic I hold to be the inmost essence of truth,’ he wrote. ‘In any newspaper one picks up one comes across reports of wholly authentic facts which nevertheless seem completely extraordinary, yet they are the truth for they are facts.”’
Sheck: Facts are powerful, radical, stubborn, revelatory. They bow to no human mind or need or hunger. They are irreducibly themselves. I wanted to privilege them, give them a prominent place in the book. They are not used to illustrate anything or illuminate anyone’s character but to stand as what they are—pieces of reality. We do not control them. In that sense there was a way I wanted to put subjectivity and human consciousness on the back burner in places and let the facts teach me things. Other parts and aspects of the book are deeply psychological, so this was one way to put them in perspective. The human is an incredibly minute part of the universe—almost nothing. We often forget this. The plague facts said: this was. They said: the Venetian government privileged commerce over health, that some of the scariest looking sores were nevertheless not the most virulent, that a doctor kept a plague ledger and at the end included himself among the killed and signed his own time and date of death. At the same time, my characters take these facts into to themselves and are changed by them. So when it was time, I showed this too. But I didn’t want to privilege their reactions or bring them in too quickly. I wanted to curate a space for the facts that was largely protected from other concerns. Though this is not so often enough spoken of, one thing writing is, is an act of curation. And it’s an aspect of making a book that I very much value.
Dostoevsky was saying, these are facts. So something looking like realistic fiction, people think of as realistic fiction, in a way is completely unrealistic. “Realism,” I’m sorry, but it leaves out a whole lot of what the real is, it’s not what realism is, it’s not real! It’s like a movie version of something. Reality is much more bizarre. It’s wonderful that it’s frightening. It’s so beyond what we think it’s supposed to be.
Rail: Your characters have dreams. I’m thinking of one involving Dr. Gaspare de Comité, the one who recorded his own death, and in the dream he erases a face with the “sound of coldness.” How do you envision the dreams working in the novel?
Sheck: I worried about the dreams, as they can seem like contrivances. I tried to use them sparingly. I used them like knives to open up areas of character and perception while retaining, I hope, some ambiguity, the irreducible layerings that are part of any psyche. The risk is that they become too clear, too symbolic, kitschy, reductive. Again, to be faithful to the real is to be faithful to ambiguity, layering, suggestiveness, the limits of knowing—an eschewing of closure. In making a dream for a character you risk enacting a certain condescension—“I am looking into your mind and see your inner thoughts, impulses, etc. and know them better than you do.” This is a form of blind arrogance and I try to avoid it.
Rail: Other novels, their characters, and themes are intertwined within the pages of Island of the Mad. I found reading these books gave me a guide or perhaps endnotes to your novel’s ideas. In knowing them I could have another layer of discussion with your pages.
Sheck: Island of The Mad and A Monster’s Notes are absolutely in conversation with other books, are in a large part love letters to the books and writers they reference. In Island of the Mad, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot opened up a whole vivid world to me—searing and challenging—of thoughts, images, associations. In a sense I sat at Dostoevsky’s feet for several years during the writing, learning from him, transformed and transfixed by what he’d done. [Bakhtin writes about this well in his ground-breaking Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.] Had his Prince Myshkin not existed, had he not written the late scene in The Idiot where Myshkin holds the murderer Rogozhin and afterwards goes mute, I would not be quite the writer I now am. That book was my teacher.
In terms of process, I try to organize each book around a few areas of fascination—ideas I want to think about, books I want to explore. I want each book to be an adventure for me, a journeying into areas of inquiry I am largely ignorant of, but by the end of my project will have learned much more. So in A Monster’s Notes there was Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein but also the Shelleys themselves, and then in the second section there was the great Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber. There were also the books and journals of the Northern explorers. For Island of the Mad, I lifted Frieda from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, where she has just a few brief paragraphs, and basically transformed her. But the seeds of where she came from remain. And I made Dostoevsky’s great novel The Idiot central—two characters on a hospital island in the Venetian Lagoon read from it when one of them is dying. It is the way they share who they are, what they are up against—but through indirection. I also trace Dostoevsky’s life in that book—his prison years, epilepsy, compulsive gambling, the loss of his baby daughter. For that I read many books, most importantly Joseph Frank’s masterful five-volume biography. I also read Dostoevsky’s working notebooks, diaries, letters, whatever I could find translated into English.
Rail: You include animals as characters. You write an arc about Pilate and his dog, which seems to end in pain, yet loyalty. There are simple, plaintive odes to cows and mentions of donkeys. What significance do animals hold for you in the story?
Sheck: In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which moves in alternating chapters between 20th century Moscow and Christ’s Jerusalem, Pilate has a dog that is almost always beside him. This powerful man who condemns Christ to be beaten and then crucified is reliant on the unwavering faithfulness of this speechless being, this dog, who doesn’t judge or reject him. There is no sense in the book that Pilate can be close to another human; he needs his dog for love and contact. Pilate is in certain ways tormented by his actions and position; as Christ points out to him when in his presence, he suffers from terrible migraines. Pilate is deeply shaken that Christ can know this about him. As Bulgakov’s book goes on, Pilate is increasingly obsessed with the man he has essentially murdered. He longs for a kind of companionship from him, an attachment and understanding similar to what he has with his dog, but it would be verbal—he imagines himself and Christ walking side by side, conversing. From another angle, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, a donkey places a crucial role. Prince Myshkin is roused out of a dire epileptic state when he hears a donkey’s bray for the first time in the marketplace in Basel. He understands intuitively that the donkey is a sufferer like him but also a good and honorable creature. The donkey makes possible Myshkin’s psychic return to the world, to a generative responsiveness. The cattle in my book, too, are beings who we share the earth with but are much more benign, less destructive, than ourselves. The relative powerlessness of animals is part of what makes them moving—and it highlights their intelligence and goodness. To be intelligent and good and without power poses a very particular challenge. I happen to feel that we ignore animals’ integrity at our peril. Humans are not superior. Verbal ability doesn’t equal superiority. Anyone who studies animals knows the amazing things particular species are capable of in terms of sensory perception, building, self-protection, communal and altruistic gestures, etc.
Rail: In reading Dostoevsky and Bulgakov’s books, I was struck with the spirituality and the religion involved. What’s your understanding of this?
Sheck: These books are in all our souls. In what it means to have a soul. It’s not religious. Chip away the exterior, extraneous things, and you get a sense for what it really feels like to be a living, feeling, appreciating, suffering being. Dostoevsky’s spirit was religious, or he called or believed that’s what it was. Also, with the epilepsy, the ecstatic aura before the attack—which started as incredible radiance, well-being, then agony on the floor, foaming mouth, depression, no language, yet he never forgot that aura. It’s in the medical textbooks, the “Dostoevsky Syndrome.” His sense of time was so different than our sense of time.
Rail: “But if I could understand how kindness moves from one body to another, from one mind to another . . .” Laurie, this theme continues through your novel. It intertwines an unusual association of sickness and kindness within the plague and its humanity. That sickness moves from one body to another, as does kindness. But you’re doing something else here—it’s as if kindness needs suffering to exist. I think too, on your writings of Dostoevsky’s imprisonment in chains (The Paris Review, 11/11/2016). Can we have kindness without suffering? Do you think we wouldn’t see kindness without suffering?
Sheck: I think we will never know. To be human involves many things, one of which is suffering. We are porous creatures—unstable, kinetic, mostly unwise, subject to the pressures and contingencies of space and time.
Rail: “If I could see color again . . . if I could know the meaning of to kneel. The meaning of kindness. The meaning of tenderness, to tend. The meaning of to give” (Island of the Mad). Here, “kindness” seems implied to have a color—
Sheck: Color is energy transmitted and embodied. It is enlivening, startling, precise, arresting. Distinct and complex as any being. In Island of the Mad, the more Frieda speaks about the Venetian plague and the more Ambrose refuses to give her a sign that he can hear her, the more she feels wrapped in an isolating darkness. Her longing for color is a longing for the living world—for vibrancy, responsiveness, interaction, a force or energy field that floods and overtakes the human. Color is a form of giving, a form of tending. A form, even, of kindness. Imagine a world without color, and then you can see how color is kind, how it tends the senses, leads them out of isolation…
Rail: And the investment in the color red describing blood, spirituality/non-spirituality, the opposites of migraine/roses, the Venetian dye? I don’t see another color given attention.
Sheck: Red is intensity. A moment burning through itself. Archaic knowledge. Urgency. Immediacy. It cuts through everything. There was no impulse to include an opposite or contrasting color. Quite the contrary. I wasn’t after balance but a vibrant, destabilizing, electric presence. An intensity that cuts through everything—darkness, numbness, isolation, illness. It flares and batters. It is in a sense everything at once. After I’d written most of the book I came across a quote from Dostoevsky, “red is a spiritual color.” With each book I get a kind of aura before I even write a word. I feel the look of it, almost like a set design. I knew this would be a red book; I could write no other.
Rail: There’s extensive space, white-space, on the book’s pages. There are different fonts. There are words crossed out, and groups of xxx like marks. What do these design elements mean to you?
Sheck: I didn’t think about it in advance at all. It just happened to me as a writer. I did that in A Monster’s Notes too. For instance, where Mary’s baby has died and Claire’s trying to write to her sister about things, and so she crosses things out, and we have x marks, and I think finally what it is, I was trying to get the feeling of thought—which is—you tried something, it doesn’t seem right, but when you have the xx marks in the midst, the cross out, the thought is and isn’t there. The thought is there—the thought is canceled. It gives you two levels at once. And then the xxx marks, the articulate, she crosses out—and in a way it felt like I was scarring the page, and I was tearing and hurting the page. I was trying to get a sense of thought, that it ripped, that it hurt, that it harmed, that it defines words, and then uses them—so how do you enact that on a page?
Rail: It’s a performance.
Sheck: Yes. Well, books are theater. It’s like a stage set—books have writing, they have color, they have elements that unify or they have pauses—language has stuttering in it. Just because it’s a book, its not supposed to stutter? What limited expressiveness is? And why?
If it’s a novel that’s showing off— “Oh, look at these sentences I like”—well, if that’s appropriate for a novel in some ways, fine, but it often isn’t. I think people with a poetry background give these things more of a thought. They think what a page is, and what a study is, and then all these emotional, psychological, intellectual things. Some writers don’t often work on what I think of a “cellular” level of language, of poetry. If you bring poetry to a novel, you’re making an interesting mix. A lot of novelists are not interested in something less than a sentence. That’s often the smallest unit that they can get to. It’s awful if you think about it.
Rail: Some pages have just a few lines of text. Others are filled with imagery, action, and form.
Sheck: Each page has its own solution. If there wasn’t something on that page that was worthwhile, that page couldn’t exist. Not, “How you move the story forward, you have to fill in this stuff.” No.
Each page has to live. It’s a nervous system. It really has to be alive.
And then I found that as the book became very echoic, not only would the pages be in conversation with the page before, but something maybe a hundred pages earlier would come back.
Rail: How did you hold that in your head?
Sheck: My head didn’t hold it. My whole self knew. It knew. There was a rhythm. I was living it. I would have a sense, “This voice comes after this,” living in the head of the character, living on the edge like a writer. You don’t want to be over-determined about it, but I think one does have to think about what echoes, what shadows there are. I think it’s true of a life. It can reoccur that way. Out of that place.
Rail: With 448 pages, how did you convince your publishers to allow all this white space on each page? Because I can only imagine someone saying, “but we could make this a one-hundred page book, if we just took out all the space. It would just be so much cheaper to publish.”
Sheck: When I wrote A Monster’s Notes before it was published, my husband said to me, “You know what they’re going to do, is they’re going to mess it all up into not so many pages.” A line would end and they would want to put words together. But that was wrong. I had a rhythm. I had the page-vision in my head. To me, that’s as much of the book as the words. The publishers I had for both were really very good about that. I didn’t have any trouble with them.
Rail: That’s really something.
Sheck: It’s crucial, I think, the “what is the rhythm of the book?” It was okay with them.
Rail: Your hunch-backed character, Ambrose, works for a company who markets the idea of “Freeing the printed word from the books that bind it…by digitizing the vast, worldwide depository amassed over centuries of human history.” He thinks, “…almost the opposite was true—that we were banishing words into air, sending them into some desolate restlessness, dematerialized, ghostly, wandering far from any shelter.”
Sheck: Ambrose is an autodidact. In order to give him access to all sorts of knowledge and idiosyncratic factoids I made him a reader and a loner who seeks solace from books. He works as a book scanner. Books are as real to him as anything, yet as he scans a page it is as if it is losing its materiality. This is something I’ve wondered about in my own life and wondered about our particular technological age, so by situating this front and center in his life, I was giving myself the chance to think about it and explore it. Screens, the virtual, electronic archives—I still find it all kind of overwhelming—how there is the materiality of language yet at the same time it is ghostly, abstract. This is one of the areas of inquiry that the poet Susan Howe so brilliantly and movingly engages with in her own work. In her books words are not wholly visible, present, or available—some are obscured behind others, some seem to almost crumble, as if eroding—they are presences anchored in the material world but also ghostly. Part of what she enacts is how the words from the past move from the hands and minds of the dead through the present and into the future, live in time and space, vulnerable, hurt, at once available and not, a mix of deepest familiarity and unbridgeable otherness.
Rail: The novel’s travel through time and space, the physicality of staying alive through disease and plague, of breath and then the voice speaking throughout—which depends on breathing, these breathing spaces the white areas give us—it’s as if the book itself is an operated heart. As in a heart being operated on the table while we read the book, with lung apparatus wheezing in and out. And yes, the dreaming life against the body’s survival-struggle.
Sheck: I like that you offer that image. There’s a page in the book where the character of the epileptic experiences Dostoevsky’s book The Idiot as alive with heartbeats and breathing. “…I picked it up, I could hear Myshkin breathing from inside the closed pages. I could hear his heartbeat.” The sleepless woman imagines that inside Ambrose’s hump are hundreds of trapped roses. Ambrose imagines removing his hump from his back at one point and giving it to the sleepless woman who wants to feel it on her back. My narrator Ambrose has spent a good percentage of his life in infirmaries and hospitals, as he has since childhood suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, in which the bones are so brittle they are subject to frequent breakage. So the body as pressing, as problematic, is always at the forefront—the mechanics of embodied life that many take for granted—breathing, walking, heartbeats, loom large for him, are magnified. The body is a site of brute material reality, of wonder and otherness, closeness and struggle.
Rail: It is a wonderous horror. Speaking of, can we talk about the “lost notebook” that Ambrose is searching after. That is the unspoken nightmare of every writer. Does this ever enter your fears as a writer?
Sheck: In the book, the lost notebook contains the notes and correspondence between two characters who have shared what they needed to share, so the notebook being lost isn’t of dire consequence. They didn’t need it. Their story has passed. They have lived it. As a writer, I think I am probably afraid less of a lost notebook than a blank mind. But maybe that’s wrong, as I haven’t ever lost one—not one of consequence at least. But the image of an unfilled or abandoned notebook—one that has stayed blank—now that can bring terror. I remember when Yo-Yo Ma left his cello by mistake in the trunk of a taxi. Or the poet Ted Weiss telling me that in the days before computers, that as a young man he was asked to carry the only copy of Hannah Arendt’s husband’s manuscript with him on the train into the city, and he lost it. Those are nightmares. On the other hand, in The Master and Margarita, which figures in Island of the Mad, Bulgakov’s wonderful devil, Woland, famously says, “manuscripts don’t burn.” The Master has thrown his book into the fireplace, but Woland insists it still exists. This is a beautiful thought, especially coming from Bulgakov, who never saw his masterpiece in print but wrote it in secret over many decades under Stalin.
Rail: When we met for our interview, we first had to reconfigure your computer because your password was lost! I feel for Ambrose. How do you see technology having an effect on your characters and their chance to reach another across a divide that keeps them from deeply touching each other?
Sheck: I think of technology as somewhat analogous to the way I described the color red—we are saturated with it, immersed in it—as many have pointed out, the technological has become and will become even more so, an extension of our bodies. In time, how will we define the human? It’s not just that we use screens and engage with the virtual but that we replace body parts with metal, heart valves with constructed or animal valves. We grow human ears on the backs of hairless mice for transplant. Soon I would think the equivalent of little robots or computer chips will be inserted into bodies at birth and will monitor throughout a lifetime our physical processes—cell changes, heart rate, blood pressure, serotonin levels, maybe even thoughts. Much science fiction writing is essentially deeply pragmatic and reality-based, and I admire it. At the MIT robotics lab, they had, for a while, a resident theologian. This touches on the aspect of your question about reaching across the divide that keeps one human being from another. Technology brings with it all sorts of spiritual and emotional challenges and questions, although issues of isolation, connection, and distance are with us always. They’re the most basic human issues; they just take on the particular coloring of the age. The brain gets used to things—seeing a loved one’s face on a screen, hearing a voice in real time from many thousands of miles away. But if you think about how little of reality the conscious brain actually engages with, how radical the real is—that at this moment billions of neutrinos are whirring through your body and mine, though we can’t see them; that fourteen billion years ago, at the time of the Big Bang, there were almost equal amounts of matter and antimatter, and now antimatter seems barely here—the real is so complex, unfathomable, overwhelming. We can’t locate antimatter; half of the universe has gone missing.
Rail: And yet, certain things stay deep within us.
Sheck: The spirit of the books is also with me in another way. There is a way in which characters from one book morph into characters in the next, so the body of the book as you call it is partly with me in a visceral way in the form of the book I am now writing—the feel of it, the characters, the concerns, the linguistic movement and coloring, wouldn’t be available to me had I not written the previous two. At one point in Island of the Mad, the dead murderess Frieda feels in her severe isolation that she’s drifting farther and farther from earth and into black space. Then Ambrose, my narrator, feels that he, too, is leaving earth: “I was drifting away in black space…I was on earth with my ugly hump, but I wasn’t…on earth with my twisted bones, but I wasn’t…or…no…I closed my eyes and all I could see was black space and inside it a body, my body, no more than a speck but still broken…The body was drifting away through black space to where no one could touch it or know it existed…”
So it is no surprise in a sense that my new work is partly located at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva, with its ongoing experiments on matter, antimatter, outer space, the limits of human understanding, and a sense of how small we are in the context of the cosmos. I heard a talk by an astrophysicist who pointed out that we are existing in the infancy of the earth’s life span. If the earth and humans continue to exist until the sun burns out, at that time in the far future we will be to the beings that have subsequently evolved on, as bacteria are to us.