253 is a unique novel about 252 passengers and 1 driver on a Bakerloo line tube heading to Elephant and Castle. Originally ‘published’ on a website, each passenger is introduced in 253 words exactly. Hyperlinks connect passengers and highlight similarities between them, reflecting a wider microcosm of society on this one Tube train.
This review is of the online version.
Each person is described in three sections. The ‘Outward Appearance’ section effects the casual observations any of us might well make given a three second glance at someone on the Tube. ‘Inside Information’ tells us things are not always what they seem and ‘What they are doing or thinking’ does what it says on the tin. There are also a number of footnotes linked to within the text giving further contextual information outside of the allotted 253 words per character.
Considering the constrictive framework Ryman has set himself with only 253 words per character to describe their appearance, motivations and actions, I initially went into this thinking it couldn’t work. What emerges quickly though is a very curious character portrait. Having looked at a bit of Tube fiction this week, it’s becoming clear; it is an odd place where boundaries seem to be transient. The Tube here, and elsewhere, seems to be fantasy world for many where people can withdraw into themselves creating a multitude of alternate realities with or about the other passengers – exactly what this book is about. The alternative is that it heightens emotions, smells and actions – sometimes with upsetting consequences.
The portraits of each character are astonishingly real. You would think that 253 descriptions of characters might be dull, but each one has they own unique quirks without them becoming unreal or repetitive. Author Geoff Ryman is clearly a genius, or blessed with a large circle of friends he can crib characteristics from.
Thrown together by chance, the consequences of their actions travels like neurosis up the carriages. Many of these passengers are preoccupied with their jobs, for some, living them has very real consequences. Tiredness, weariness and baggy eyes litter the faces of the passengers. This could be any Tube carriage travelling on any line in London.
253 highlights how much more in common each of us has than we might think with the person next to us. Nowhere more is this true in the UK than on the Underground. Whilst the amount of characters who know each other on this particular journey is a bit OTT, I challenge anyone not to have had a chance encounter with an ex-lover, a neighbour, a colleague at some point on public transport.
Described as a cult classic in the making, 253 embraced what was a new technology at the time to tremendous effect it almost creates a whole new way of thinking. I don’t think that the print edition would have the same effect – the links between the passengers give so much depth and add extra layers to them, that the original format cannot be beaten. There is little story here to be had, but the story isn’t the point – 253 is a wonderfully original idea, never really tried before and perfectly suited to the medium it is in.
The Fiction Stroker gives 253 four Strokes out of Five:
253 can be read online here.