A Novel for the Internet about London Underground in Seven Cars and a Crash
Written, encoded, and uploaded by Geoff Ryman
by Rudi Dornemann
This review is not about the future of the novel; no paeans here to the coming golden age of hyperfiction, when the shackles of cellulose and linearity will be cast aside. 253 is a novel of the present. An awake present, actively contemporary and plugged in to contemporary tech, but as fully engaged with the timeless as any novel of Cervantes' time or Swift's, Flaubert's or Woolf's.
Geoff Ryman, whose previous (paper) novels include WAS and The Child Garden, builds this hypertext novel around a simple, rigorous format: for each of the 253 passengers riding seven cars of London's Bakerloo subway line (driver included), Ryman gives us a one page character sketch. Each sketch describes the character's appearance, as well as something that isn't apparent and the character's thoughts or actions as they ride. All this in exactly 253 words.
On paper, 253 would be a mosaic; on the Web, "tapestry" is the more appropriate word. Words, highlighted here and there in each character sketch, link that character to several others. Ryman weaves trails of these links throughout 253, building a big world out of all these micro-narratives. The reader can follow the link-paths, exploring interlocking networks of coincidences, common neighborhoods, rumors, lifetimes or moments of shared pasts. The novel's present also links the characters through accidental jostlings, brief glances, and sudden and unrequited crushes.
The cast of characters is a mix of ages, occupations, classes, nationalities, personalities, sexes and sexualities--what you'd expect to find on the London underground on an average morning. Ryman gives us insight into the characters' internal diversity as well, generating three-dimensional characters out of the contrast between their appearance and their secrets. Mr. Ralph Moles is "a body-piercing specialist" in a "rubberware and fetish shop" but he secretly yearns for "clean white Y fronts and Hayley Mills fully clothed." Mr. Kendo Kawahara looks like a typical Japanese businessman but he's also an Elvis impersonator "who releases records of material the King would have recorded if he had lived . . ."
Not all the character sketches are as quirky as these two. Ryman strikes a number of different moods in various sketches, and many are quite moving. Some are both quirky and moving, like Mr. Xavier Ducro, who has discovered a strange synchronicity between events in his life anagramatic messages on signs he sees out the subway car window. After exploiting the humor of these messages, Ryman ends the sketch on a tense note--a message implies his fiancé is in danger of some kind of accident and Xavier rushes from the train.
Ryman also bridges stories across several characters--creating what is more a "storyfield," evenly dispersed among the characters, than a linear storyline. There's a New York cab driver who's gradually seducing four different women (whose own stories we can find elsewhere on the train). There's a hapless comedian fumbling through a performance with "Mind the Gap, a troupe that stages comedy skits on the Underground for a fee-paying audience." We see him through the eyes of the troupe's director, audience members, unaware bystanders, the police who break up the performance, as well as the comedian himself.
Throughout, it's Ryman's narrative voice--humorous, insightful, by turns cynical and compassionate--that disarms whatever uneasiness the reader has about the form. The voice is what makes the novel work. In 253, any character's page could be the reader's first (so every page must engage and entice) and any page could be the reader's last (so every page has to round out and satisfy).
Reading hyperfiction, it's easy to worry about whether the text will satisfy expectations of closure and completeness. Have I missed anything crucial? If I don't know if I read the whole thing, how can I talk or think intelligently about it? Did a key bit of character resolution lie up some unread link? Even the least traditional physical book satisfies these expectations simply being bound(ed) between two covers. Just holding it in your hand, you sense you've got all of it, that the whole of the text is there. But with a hypertext experienced part by part on a screen, that sense is gone.
253 allays these worries through its structure and through Ryman's virtuosity within that structure. The characters are vividly drawn and the trope of "Inside Information" brings a feeling of knowing them well. The character to character links aren't overwhelming in number, so the reader has a sense of being able to embrace all (or enough) of the plots discovered along the way. Finally, Ryman satisfies the "what-next" curiosity by capping each car's character sketches with an "End of the Line" page--a bit of continuation, perhaps of closure, a moment easing out of still description and into sequential time just long enough to hint at transcendence. And, like the rest of 253, the "End of the Line" pages offer the reader routes back into the heart of the novel, the center that is everywhere.
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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997