Griffin , 1998, 384 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-18295-3
(Preferably read online at http://www.ryman-novel.com )
Now here’s an early-web curio that most may have forgotten: a “hypertext novel” in the purest sense, a story without much of a main plot but plenty of characters. 253 of them, in fact: the number of people that can fit in a London tube train. Every one of them to be described in 253-word long chapters. The train (we quickly learn) is doomed to a terrible crash, making the lives of its passengers seem even more poignant.
High concepts such as “interactive novels” are often bandied about by amateur writers convinced of their genius and self-importance. Often, they’re just rehashes of cheap “make your own adventures” YA novels. Less often, they can take on deeper themes about the way we live stories (such as Kim Newman’s exceptional Life’s Lottery). Geoff Ryman isn’t just any writer (a fact that has grown even more obvious since 253) and his hypertext novel is considerably more ambitious than a piece of stunt writing.
Inevitably, there are many ways to read 253. Paperbound readers will find a “paper remix” of the book available in bookstores. But that’s a very linear interpretation of the work: the fullest experience is freely available from the web site on which Ryman originally wrote the novel. Here you will find the introductory material, tragic conclusion and the 253 character profiles that form the backbone of the novel. Thanks to the hyperlinks, you will be able to jump from one character profile to another as they interact, building a fuller picture of what is happening aboard that doomed train. Navigating through the novel becomes your own interpretation of the book: Characters encountered in a particular context will have a different resonance later on when they’re seen from other viewpoints, perhaps irremediably affecting the experience of 253.
For instance, I started reading 253 with the firm intention of doing it linearly: I would read all of the introductions, then all of the character profiles, then the conclusion. But only a few characters into the story, I started following the links that suggested a story. A young man with a crush on an older woman? Let’s click and see what she sees! What, she’s married and her husband is following her? Let’s click and see what happens! Ryman has been clever enough to include a number of such mini-dramas in the hypertext, and it’s not uncommon, following links, to go from one of those stories to another. In some ways, the free-form nature of 253 offers a clearer look at the way storytelling is wired in our brains: I found that I simply couldn’t resist the attraction of a suggested narrative. (Clearly, I’ve been spending too much time reading John “The World can be read as Story” Clute.)
The number of characters also allows Ryman many fiction-bending possibilities, as it eventually becomes apparent (especially in the last car) that not every character is inhabiting the same world, the same genre or the same story. Some are lost in dreary domestic drama; others are stuck in a crime thriller; at least one would feel at ease in a science-fiction story (having discovered the proof of the entirely reasonable assertion that all males are slightly autistic), whereas a bunch of them eventually transform their train ride in a musical comedy. A “Tall, ravaged, nervous-looking middle aged man” named Geoff Ryman [Passenger 96] even makes an appearance as part of a roving comedy troupe. But even he isn’t the strangest character on-board: That honour could either go to another man studying his fellow passengers and writing the novel’s epitaph (Passenger 252), mysteriously blank character 70, “Pigeon-chested, pigeon-toed” character 121 (my personal favourite) or the ultimate passenger 253, who sends the entire novel into an entirely different direction altogether.
It makes a unique reading experience: So many characters in such a condensed fashion, with unexpected links and a variety of lives worth experiencing. 253 often recalls the old joke about the dictionary (“great vocabulary, lousy plot”), but here the diversity and interconnectedness (or lack thereof) of the characters is the fabric from which the narrative is made. The train crash is the epilogue than caps off the story in tragic fashion, a sad note in what is otherwise an exhilarating experience (albeit occasionally tedious, when read too quickly). I’m half-glad, half-disappointed I got to experience it at home in front of my computer: In an ideal world, I might have done better had I read it on my PDA during my own lengthy bus rides to and back from work.