Tag Archives: Fall 1997

253 or Tube Theater

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

A Pack of Lies

Pack of LiesGilbert Sorrentino
Dalkey Archive Press ($21.95)

by Rick Henry

Pack of Lies brings under the same cover three of Sorrentino's earlier novels: Odd Number (1985), Rose Theatre (1987), and Misterioso (1989). The rebinding of these books offers a slight variation on many of Sorrentino's own concerns about the status of the original and the variant, and how competing versions of a story (or character or point of view or narrative technique) amplify or undermine our understanding of the characters, perspectives, and narrative styles therein. So is Pack of Lies a bona fide variant of the three earlier novels? Or is it merely a repetition of the same? Either way, Sorrentino's work demands rereading, indeed, demands revisions of the reading process, and in so doing is rewarding for several reasons.

I. A carnival of characters:
Sorrentino assembles a stupendous group of sexual, intellectual, and artistic adventurers, mobile-like in their interactions, and often doubled, tripled, or quadrupled, either by conflicting reports of their behaviors, by their own masks and charades and pseudonyms and remakings of themselves, or by alternate versions of characters that are mutually individuated but often similar enough to confuse the inattentive reader: Lou Henry, cuckolded by Sheila Henry the sometimes nymphet and lover of Bunny Lewis, who is on her second marriage despite her blatant lesbian tendencies and whose first marriage was to the sadomasochist Harlan Pungoe, business partner and sometimes lover of Dr. Ann Taylor Redding who cannot manage to complete her penning of an "erotic rècite" unlike Leo Kaufman, whose novel Isolate Flecks may reprise all of this and more; Leo, husband of Anne Kaufman whose nom-de-plume may or may not be Anne Leo and who had a brief affair with Lorna Flambeaux who is to be confused with neither Annie Flammard nor Annette Lorpailleur, the same Annette who attempted to draw April Detective into something of an orgy featuring Lou and Sheila and Bunny and Harlan—April who, despite her sometimes naïveté, cannot help but note the unending parade of 'Karens' that suffer her sweet husband, Dick: Hi! I'm Karen Blonde, Karen Cornfield, Karen Fairgrounds, Karen Forage, Karen Gash, Karen Heineken, Linda (the American Karen), Karen Millpond, Karen Minet, Karen O'Grady, etc.

These, then, are some of the varied authors, directors, producers, characters, and plagiarists of Steelwork, Metalmouth, La bouche mètallique, The Metal Fly, Orange Steel, The Orange Dress, The Metal Dress, Steel Orange, On Their Metal,Metallic Constructions—an orgy of novels, films, sculptures, screenplays, and operas that share more than the few words in their titles.

II. A cacophony of narrative technique and intertext:
Sorrentino is a formalist of the first order. Odd Number comprises three sections, each purporting to reveal something about the sometimes sordid, sometimes tawdry, always suspect events at a party and the subsequent death of Sheila Henry who is run over by her husband on a dark and foggy night in a scene that is reminiscent of a scene from Leo Kaufman's Isolate Flecks—or so the first section reports. The other two sections give different versions until one begins to doubt that Sheila Henry died at all. From there, it is a small step to doubt whether or not a party took place, indeed, whether we have any grounds for belief in either the fictional or factual worlds despite apparent consensus among the tales. Was Sheila really involved in a menage-a-trois with her husband and Bunny Lewis while Harlan Pungoe sat in a corner watching? Do the events reported in Odd Number really reprise emsolate Flecks, or are they more reminiscent of a blue movie called The Party starring Sister Rose Zeppole? Or are the events a parody of an earlier party held in Vermont, which was itself "a parody of a comedy of manners" with "a lot of sex and jealousy and weeping" and "people sick and depressed"?

Rose Theatre is similarly dense, but given over to the women and their concerns (a subtle evocation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales? or Dr. Redding's unfinished eroticism "Shadowie Lumpe"?). Misterioso is the most structurally adventurous of the three, an odd and anecdotal index of characters, loosely alphabetical and covering characters both in these early novels and in Sorrentino's other work.

III. A celebration of sentences:
Sorrentino is a virtuoso. I select, almost at random, the following from Misterioso: "It might as well be mentioned, now that Tadeusz Creon has been once again hauled out and dusted off, so to speak, that he is prominently mentioned in April Detective's memoirs, Strange Coincidences, as one of the many unsavory men who took advantage of her temporary nymphomania, during what she rather cryptically calls her 'Struttn' With Some Barbecue' period." Where to begin with such a delightful series of qualified mentionings and cryptic callings that offer the perspectives of two speakers and a half-a-dozen veiled layers between the reader and matters of fact? What are readers to do when such a statement can be detached from one context and reapplied to another as easily as a post-it note? Might any of the hundreds of reviews contained inside the fiction—of the above novels, screenplays, and operas reported herein—be attached to Pack of Lies? "A subtle bas-relief of a grey world?" "Compelling? Or merely fashionably obscurantist?"

Sorrentino's work invites endless variations, each a tentacled venture into literature (his own, Faulkner's, Joyce's, Dreiser's, Wharton's, etc.) and the cinematic and plastic arts. As a gesture toward assembling Sorrentino's work, Pack of Lies is suggestive, but hardly enough. One expects an astute and future editor with ample budget will bind all of Sorrentino's work in one volume, thereby accentuating the author's sustained exploration of narrative techniques and continued reevaluation of his characters and their circumstances.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Print Edition, Vol. 2 No. 3, Fall (#7) | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1997