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A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

Written by Susan OrleanAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Susan Orlean



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On Sale: July 20, 2011
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-79529-8
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On Sale: October 29, 2002
ISBN: 978-0-375-41878-5
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
 
A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.
 
In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.

Look for special features inside. Join the Random House Reader’s Circle for author chats and more.
 
Praise for The Orchid Thief
 
“Stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy . . . The Orchid Thief shows [Orlean’s] gifts in full bloom.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Fascinating . . . an engrossing journey [full] of theft, hatred, greed, jealousy, madness, and backstabbing.”Los Angeles Times
 
“Orlean’s snapshot-vivid, pitch-perfect prose . . . is fast becoming one of our national treasures.”The Washington Post Book World
 
“Orlean’s gifts [are] her ear for the self-skewing dialogue, her eye for the incongruous, convincing detail, and her Didion-like deftness in description.”Boston Sunday Globe
 
“A swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great.”The Wall Street Journal

Excerpt

The Millionaire's Hothouse



John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. Laroche is thirty-six years old. Until recently he was employed by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, setting up a plant nursery and an orchid-propagation laboratory on the tribe's reservation in Hollywood, Florida.



Laroche strikes many people as eccentric. The Seminoles, for instance, have two nicknames for him: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man. Once, when Laroche was telling me about his childhood, he remarked, "Boy, I sure was a weird little kid." For as long as he can remember he has been exceptionally passionate and driven. When he was about nine or ten, his parents said he could pick out a pet. He decided to get a little turtle. Then he asked for ten more little turtles. Then he decided he wanted to breed the turtles, and then he started selling turtles to other kids, and then he could think of nothing but turtles and then decided that his life wasn't worth living unless he could collect one of every single turtle species known to mankind, including one of those sofa-sized tortoises from the Galapagos. Then, out of the blue, he fell out of love with turtles and fell madly in love with Ice Age fossils. He collected them, sold them, declared that he lived for them, then abandoned them for something else--lapidary I think--then he abandoned lapidary and became obsessed with collecting and resilvering old mirrors. Laroche's passions arrived unannounced and ended explosively, like car bombs. When I first met him he lusted only for orchids, especially the wild orchids growing in Florida's Fakahatchee Strand. I spent most of the next two years hanging around with him, and at the end of those two years he had gotten rid of every single orchid he owned and swore that he would never own another orchid for as long as he lived. He is usually true to his word. Years ago, between his Ice Age fossils and his old mirrors, he went through a tropical-fish phase. At its peak, he had more than sixty fish tanks in his house and went skin-diving regularly to collect fish. Then the end came. He didn't gradually lose interest: he renounced fish and vowed he would never again collect them and, for that matter, he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was seventeen years ago. He has lived his whole life only a couple of feet west of the Atlantic, but he has not dipped a toe in it since then.



Laroche tends to sound like a Mr. Encyclopedia, but he did not have a rigorous formal education. He went to public school in North Miami; other than that, he is self-taught. Once in a while he gets wistful about the life he thinks he would have led if he had applied himself more conventionally. He believes he would have probably become a brain surgeon and that he would have made major brain-research breakthroughs and become rich and famous. Instead, he lives in a frayed Florida bungalow with his father and has always scratched out a living in unaverage ways. One of his greatest assets is optimism--that is, he sees a profitable outcome in practically every life situation, including disastrous ones. Years ago he spilled toxic pesticide into a cut on his hand and suffered permanent heart and liver damage from it. In his opinion, it was all for the best because he was able to sell an article about the experience ("Would You Die for Your Plants?") to a gardening journal. When I first met him, he was working on a guide to growing plants at home. He told me he was going to advertise it in High Times, the marijuana magazine. He said the ad wouldn't mention that marijuana plants grown according to his guide would never mature and therefore never be psychoactive. The guide was one of his all-time favorite projects. The way he saw it, he was going to make lots of money on it (always excellent) plus he would be encouraging kids to grow plants (very righteous) plus the missing information in the guide would keep these kids from getting stoned because the plants they would grow would be impotent (incalculably noble). This last fact was the aspect of the project he was proudest of, because he believed that once kids who bought the guide realized they'd wasted their money trying to do something illegal--namely, grow and smoke pot--they would also realize, thanks to John Laroche, that crime doesn't pay. Schemes like these, folding virtue and criminality around profit, are Laroche's specialty. Just when you have finally concluded that he is a run-of-the-mill crook, he unveils an ulterior and somewhat principled but always lucrative reason for his crookedness. He likes to describe himself as a shrewd bastard. He loves doing things the hard way, especially if it means that he gets to do what he wants to do but also gets to leave everyone else wondering how he managed to get away with it. He is quite an unusual person. He is also the most moral amoral person I've ever known.




I met John Laroche for the first time a few years ago, at the Collier County Courthouse in Naples, Florida. I was in Florida at the time because I had read a newspaper article reporting that a white man--Laroche--and three Seminole men had been arrested with rare orchids they had stolen out of a Florida swamp called the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, and I wanted to know more about the incident. The newspaper story was short but alluring. It described the Fakahatchee as a wild swamp near Naples filled with exceptional plants and trees, including some that don't grow anywhere else in the United States and some that grow nowhere else in the world. All wild orchids are now considered endangered, and it is illegal to take them out of the woods anywhere, and particularly out of a state property like the Fakahatchee. According to the newspaper, Laroche was the ringleader of the poachers. He provided the arresting officers with the proper botanical varietal names for all the stolen plants and explained that the plants were bound for a laboratory where they were going to be cloned by the millions and then sold to orchid collectors around the world.



I read lots of local newspapers and particularly the shortest articles in them, and most particularly any articles that are full of words in combinations that are arresting. In the case of the orchid story I was interested to see the words "swamp" and "orchids" and "Seminoles" and "cloning" and "criminal" together in one short piece. Sometimes this kind of story turns out to be something more, some glimpse of life that expands like those Japanese paper balls you drop in water and then after a moment they bloom into flowers, and the flower is so marvelous that you can't believe there was a time when all you saw in front of you was a paper ball and a glass of water. The judge in the Seminole orchid case had scheduled a hearing a few weeks after I read the article, so I arranged to go down to Naples to see if this ball of paper might bloom.



It was the dead center of winter when I left New York; in Naples it was warm and gummy, and from my plane I could see thick thunderclouds trolling along the edge of the sky. I checked into a big hotel on the beach, and that evening I stood on my balcony and watched the storm explode over the water. The hearing was the next morning at nine. As I pulled out of the hotel garage the parking attendant warned me to drive carefully. "See, in Naples you got to be careful," he said, leaning in my window. He smelled like daiquiris. It was probably suntan lotion. "When it rains here," he added, "cars start to fly." There are more golf courses per person in Naples than anywhere else in the world, and in spite of the hot, angry weather everyone around the hotel was dressed to play, their cleated shoes tapping out a clickety-clickety-clickety tattoo on the sidewalks.



The courthouse was a few miles south of town in a fresh-looking building made of bleached stone pocked with fossilized seashells. When I arrived, there were a few people inside, nobody talking to anybody, no sounds except for the creaking of the wooden benches and the sound of some guy in the front row gunning his throat. After a moment I recognized Laroche from the newspaper picture I'd seen. He was not especially dressed up for court. He was wearing wraparound Mylar sunglasses, a polyblend shirt printed with some sort of scenic design, a Miami Hurricanes baseball cap, and worn-out grayish trousers that sagged around his rear. He looked as if he wanted a cigarette. He was starting to stand up when the judge came in and settled in her chair; he sat down and looked cross. The prosecutor then rose and read the state's charges--that on December 21, 1994, Laroche and his three Seminole assistants had illegally removed more than two hundred rare orchid and bromeliad plants from the Fakahatchee and were apprehended leaving the swamp in possession of four cotton pillowcases full of flowers. They were accused of criminal possession of endangered species and of illegally removing plant life from state property, both of which are punishable by jail time and fines.



The judge listened with a blank expression, and when the prosecutor finished she called Laroche to testify. He made a racket getting up from his seat and then sauntered to the center of the courtroom with his head cocked toward the judge and his thumbs hooked in his belt loops. The judge squinted at him and told him to state his name and address and to describe his expertise with plants. Laroche jiggled his foot and shrugged. "Well, Your Honor," he said, "I'm a horticultural consultant. I've been a professional horticulturist for approximately twelve years and I've owned a plant nursery with a number of plants of great commercial and ethnobiological value. I have very extensive experience with orchids and with the asexual micropropagation of orchids under aseptic cultures." He paused for a moment and grinned. Then he glanced around the room and added, "Frankly, Your Honor, I'm probably the smartest person I know."
Susan Orlean|Author Q&A

About Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean - The Orchid Thief

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1992 and has also written for Outside, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Vogue. She graduated from the University of Michigan and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She now lives in Los Angeles and upstate New York with her husband and son.

Author Q&A

Q:        If there were one question you wished an interviewer would ask, but never has, what would it be?

A:        There is no question I wish I had been asked. There is a question I wish I could answer: how does the creative process work? Often people will say, where in the world did you get the idea for that lead? And I wish I could answer it, because it is very intuitive, and I think it would be a comfort to imagine that it wasn't sheer accident, that there was a very specific process by which writing took place, but there isn't.

Q:        This book had its gestation as a report in a Florida newspaper article. Then you wrote a piece on the subject for The New Yorker. What was it that made you decide that it warranted 282 pages?

A:        When I originally went down to write about it for The New Yorker I felt like I was peeling an onion. Every aspect of the story seemed richer than I imagined. For instance, at the Fakahatchee Strand where the original poaching took place, I casually asked one of the rangers how long it had been a preserve and what had been there before it was a preserve, and I stumbled on an entire story of Florida land scams that I felt was fascinating. I loved the idea of taking a single event, something very specific and examining it thoroughly and deeply rather than a big, sprawling event. That's a task, to take a very tight focus and make a book out of it.

Q:        Your published work is all based on actual happenings; it is reportage. Have you ever considered novelizing your experiences?

A:        I never have. People have asked me this, but I think real life is so interesting. I don't think I could have imagined a character as eccentric and fascinating as John Laroche. I also think there is a discipline in taking true stories and making them engaging to a reader. You have to deal with what really exists. That is a greater challenge than thinking, "Gee, it would have worked out better if he had gone to jail for a year; I think I'll just have him go to jail for a year." Instead, this is reality.
        There is also a part of me that likes the pedagogical part of writing. I like that challenge of bringing knowledge to readers, material they didn't know they would actually want to know.

Q:        One of the themes of the book is: what is the nature of passion, how it is that people can shape their lives around a particular obsession. Are you a passionate collector?

A:        No. I am fascinated by it, partly because I never have had that kind of devotion to a single interest. Obviously at the end of the book, I realize I do have a single-minded passion. It is the passion to be a writer and a reporter. But I think the detachment was to my advantage. I don't like writing about things I am too invested in initially. For me, part of the process of writing is the journey to understanding. Orchids were to me a complete cipher--just flowers; how could anybody care about them? The journey was to try and understand how people could come to care about them, and why.
        I am not being perfectly honest when I say I am not a collector. I am not an orchid collector. I collect many things, many kind of strange things. I have just never surrendered my sense of myself to say that I am a collector of things. I have a lot of odd collections: for years I collected toothpaste from around the world, American pottery of a certain color, tin globes. I have started lately to collect dice. And yet I would never describe myself as a dice collector or a pottery collector. That's the big difference between me and the orchid people who think of themselves as Orchid-people. It defines their lives

Q:         John Laroche may be the title character of the book, but he is only its object; Susan Orlean is its subject. It is about you; it is a form of autobiography. If you were to consciously write an autobiography, which element of your life would you focus on?

A:        I can't even imagine.
        When people say, "you always put yourself in your stories," well, I am in my stories. It is a matter of acknowledging it. The fact is I do not write news that must be reported. I choose to write about whatever captures my curiosity. Simply choosing what you write about is a subjective choice.

Q:         In the context of orchids--interdependence between species, their parasitic or epiphytic relationships--you might consider your focus to be living off the desires, aspirations, happenings of others. That is how you make your living. As a common parasite, really.

A:         Thank you. My subject is, in one form or another, 'family' (in a very loose way). We are put on earth, we don't know why and we need to figure out how to make it feel meaningful, how to find some niche that we fit into comfortably. People go to great lengths to do this. They might focus on work or some interest like orchids, or be propelled by a desire to make lots of money or to raise their children in a certain way. And my passion is to examine and interpret that and convey it to other people. And yes, it is very much a matter of connection and disconnection and belonging and not belonging.

Q:         Beneath the overriding theme of the nature of passion, the thought that surfaces with regularity is the nature of the parasite. You describe Florida as "less like a state than a sponge." John Laroche himself lives off other people's weaknesses. What is your ultimate estimation of his parasitic pursuits?

A:         I think his whole episode in pornography was very telling. If people were foolish enough to come to him and offer him lots of money to post naked pictures of themselves on the web, he felt that his mission in life would be to charge them as much as possible. That's parasitic profiteering: making money off of people's fantasies.

Q:        With the title The Orchid Thief, you immediately raise the question of John Laroche's morality.

A:        This was the question that dogged me throughout my reporting. There were certainly moments when I thought: this is really just an ordinary greedy guy who is a little bit more clever than the ordinary greedy guy. Yet, there was a certain strange logic in this greediness. He had discovered a law that was so badly written that he could abuse it and take advantage [of it]. I also think it was a way for him to justify his own ends which were fairly simple: he wanted to make a million dollars. But he would not have wanted to do it had there not been an interesting complexity to it. I don't think he is a charlatan. I think he's a person who can't seem to live within the conventional bounds that most of us feel comfortable living within. And it is probably something to do with needing attention. He can't just succeed, he needs to succeed in a complicated, interesting, unusual way.

Q:         John Laroche shares with so many Americans a "lotto" mentality of getting rich quick. But not every get-rich-quick scheme ignites the same degree of passion in him. Although he recognizes its potential, he disdains, for example, the white-striped lawn grass that he is offered from South America with "Oh, I'm not into lawn grass." It is like him looking for a Friesian cash cow in a meadow full of Holsteins. Like Don Quixote, he is the ultimate loser. Do you regard Laroche's particular fetish as a noble, quixotic trait?

A:         I think noble would dignify it too much. I think he has a grand self-image. It would be enough for an ordinary person to get rich with something unspectacular like lawn grass. But Laroche has a vision of himself as something larger than life. When he steals orchids, it isn't sufficient that he steals orchids, it is also necessary that the Florida State legislature stops dead in its tracks and rewrites the law, recognizing what he has done.
        He is a loser if you compare him to normal standards of success. In his own mind he is not a loser because he really is living the life he wants to lead.

Q:         You paint Florida as the ultimate America, the land of plenty, and yet one gets the strong sense that you find its profuseness more than just a little vulgar. Did you retain a sense of remaining a distinct and separate being, or were you ever in danger of becoming part of the exotic blur?

A:         I will forever be an outsider to Florida. I am not a hot weather person. I think you have to learn to melt into the Florida landscape if you are to learn to become 'Floridian'. On the other hand I think I am a person who is typical of Florida. I came down there to find my own fortune. Like so many people I came to Florida with a scheme in mind: I wanted to write this book about this peculiar event that had taken place. But my connection was impermanent. It surprises me to realize I have written easily over half a dozen pieces down there. Part of that is the fact that interesting, strange things happen in Florida. It is a bubbling-stew of a place. And the kinds of stories that interest me, people starting new lives, creating new communities, happened in Florida.

Q:         Let's talk about your relief when you know that you will not be seeing the ghost orchid after all. Fate intervenes. Disappointment is deflected. And you are grateful. Is that how you rule your life?

A:        I think about this all the time. I try to figure out if there is destiny and fate or if life is just haphazard. What we search for is a kind of order and logic in what is the chaotic and illogical experience of being alive. I think you grab on to little footholds that make you think that there is logic and that there is some sense of order in your life. It is very funny how much we crave that. I am almost delighted to have a fortune teller say to me, "Nothing is going to happen until January" because I feel relieved of that anticipation. I can't believe there isn't a grand design that is always unfolding in front of us. It is a comfort to think that there is something. Sometimes I wonder how it is that I ended up as a writer. It seems, looking back on it, almost fated. On the other hand I am not sure. Do I believe that? Or, aren't we all inventions of our own choices and decisions?

Q:         Do you still have the desire, unrequited as it was at the end of the book, to see a ghost orchid?

A:         Now I am a little afraid to see one. I had gone for such a long time thinking I was going to see one, and being thwarted over and over again, that towards the end of my reporting, I began to think it was better that I didn't see one. It could never have matched all of the expectations that I was bringing to it. A ranger from the Fakahatchee called me after the book came out and said, "If you want to see a ghost orchid, I will take you to see one. I'll call you when I know there's one in bloom. You can come down." And I realized I didn't really want to. I like just imagining it, as something irresistible and unattainable. One of these days I suspect I will see one. It would be nice if it were by accident.

Q:        Have you seen or talked to John Laroche since the book was published?

A:        I haven't seen him. I have talked to him. In fact he called me after the book was first published and he said, "Well, I've read the book."
        And I said, "U-huh," and naturally I was a little apprehensive. I wasn't sure what his reaction would be. It wasn't an entirely flattering portrait.
        And he said to me in his usual way, "You know, if you write a couple more books, you could turn into a pretty good writer."

Q:        There is never anything in the book that unambiguously paints Laroche as an attractive individual, yet he seems to have exerted a strong almost pseudo-antagonist influence on you amid the sexual imagery that pervades the descriptions and activities of orchids--growing in the crotches of a pop ash tree--Laroche lusting after orchids--the passion for them being the catalyst for divorce and so on. Did you analyze your fascination with Laroche going beyond the objective interest in his passion?

A:        There was a lot of sexual imagery in the book. I only realize this now. As a matter of fact, it was a bit of a challenge to find a photograph of an orchid for the cover that wasn't too sexual. Certainly, when I set out to write a book about flowers, I never thought it would be sexy.
        But our relationship was strictly reporter and subject. It is certainly true that you develop a kind of intimacy with someone you are writing about. You spend an enormous amount of time with them. You want to hear everything they have to say. It is a kind of idealized relationship. By definition, everything he had to say was interesting to me, because that is what I was there to do: to find out about him. I think you can become very attached, very connected to each other. Going back to the parasitic theme: you are each serving a purpose. He was my subject. His cooperation made it possible for me to write a book. I was his witness to whom he could describe his life's ambitions and get attention for them. I think one of the great questions in non-fiction is: what does that relationship mean? Because the relationship ends when the book ends, is that a betrayal? There was never any flicker of romantic interest on my side, and I suspect on both sides. But you do develop a connection that is unusual. It is hard to imagine any relationship that is similar, except that of a confessor, I suppose.
        There was a great piece years ago written by Janet Malcolm, that argued that there is a mutually exploitative relationship between a reporter and a subject. I have to agree with her. That does not mean that it is evil and corrupt. It just means that to not acknowledge that you are each using each other for a reason and that that is the context of the relationship, is just naïve. It is not a natural relationship. It is a very unnatural relationship. You are not having a friendship with John Laroche. You are having a relationship within the context of the reportage. I don't think it means that it is false. It means that you always have to be aware that it is an unnatural circumstance.


Tim McHenry edited and contributed to the Bloomsbury publication The Lost Voices of World War I. His travel writing on Madagascar, Borneo and East Timor has appeared in The Daily Telegraph, London.

Praise

Praise

“Stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy . . . The Orchid Thief shows [Orlean’s] gifts in full bloom.”The New York Times Book Review
 
“Fascinating . . . an engrossing journey [full] of theft, hatred, greed, jealousy, madness, and backstabbing.”Los Angeles Times
 
“Orlean’s snapshot-vivid, pitch-perfect prose . . . is fast becoming one of our national treasures.”The Washington Post Book World
 
“Orlean’s gifts [are] her ear for the self-skewing dialogue, her eye for the incongruous, convincing detail, and her Didion-like deftness in description.”Boston Sunday Globe
 
“A swashbuckling piece of reporting that celebrates some virtues that made America great.”The Wall Street Journal


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1) Is there a hero in The Orchid Thief? An anti-hero?

2) Is the book subjective? Objective? Or a different genre altogether?

3) Some people describe this as "literary non-fiction." Is that how you would characterize it?

4) Susan Orlean resists the temptation to feel possessed by the orchids but she is willing to undergo great trials in order to satisfy her passion for reporting. Is this passion evident in her writing?

5) The passion for collecting is described in the book as a means of infusing meaning into life, subjecting the vicissitudes to some order, acquiring the ability to mold and change the nature of things, i.e. create life itself. What other means do humans employ to achieve the same ends, and how effective are they?

6) John Laroche would not describe himself as an orchid person. To him the orchid is a temporary albeit very intense passion, a means to an end, not an end in itself. How would you analyze the difference between Laroche's motives in collecting orchids and the regular orchid collectors we visit in the course of the book?

7) Laroche wrestles verbally with the thought that acting within what he considered the bounds of the law for his own immediate gain was ultimately an act of altruism. His rape of the Fakahatchee would force the law to be changed and close the loophole that allowed him to poach rare and wild orchids form an Indian reservation in the first place, thus protecting the species in the wild, and securing it for the marketplace at the same time. Is this the thought process of an amoral character? Or is he just an everyday charlatan? Discuss.

8) Laroche makes a very telling statement: "When I had my own nursery I sometimes felt like all the people swarming around were going to eat me alive. I felt like they were that gigantic parasitic plant and I was the dying host tree." Is Laroche playing the role of the victim, the martyr to a (preferably lost, but grand) cause or is he in control of his life by making a living off other people's weaknesses, whether it be a passion for orchids or pornography? Discuss.

9) Orlean seems fascinated by the story of Darwin and the study of the orchid with the eighteen inch nectary and the moth with the eighteen inch proboscis to feed on it: the idea that two totally different life forms evolved specifically to serve each other; that neither could have existed without the other. What has the evidence of the orchid's adaptability altered your perception of the theories of evolution?

10) Orlean interrupts her central narrative of John Laroche with stories of the orchid hunters of the past, the contemporary state for Florida and other histories. How does this affect the pace of the work?

11) Is the framework she has devised successful?

12) The Native Americans on the reservation are entitled by one law to remove protected species from their land. Is this law justified?

13) Orlean seems surprised by the abundance of sexual references to orchids in their book. Yet the flower is the prime sexual organ of most plants. Seek out a florist with a good representation of orchids. What alternative descriptions of these exotic flowers can you devise?

14) What is the real core, the central character, of the book: Laroche? Florida? Orchids? Native Americans? Darwin? Orlean?

15) As a reader, what did you expect from a book about orchids?

16) How did your experience for reading The Orchid Thief compare to what you expected?

17) The working title of The Orchid Thief was "Passion." What does that suggest about the themes in the book?

18) What, besides orchids, could generate a book like this?

19) Are there other subcultures or other objects of desire that might be as provocative?


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