Book review: 253, Geoff Ryman

Continuing with my Mount TBR challenge (which is still ongoing, although I may have fallen off the wagon recently with regards to buying new books…), I just finished reading 253, by Geoff Ryman. I got this from about a year ago, after seeing it mentioned favourably by Neil Gaiman. I had no idea what it was about, but I trust Mr Gaiman’s taste so I thought I’d go for it.

253 is an odd book. From the blurb:

A Bakerloo line tube train with no one standing and no empty seats carries 252 passengers. The driver makes 253. They all have their own secret histories, their own thoughts about themselves and their travelling neighbours. And they all have one page, totalling exactly 253 words, devoted to them. Each page a story, each page a novel. There are connections and rejections, chance meetings and frantic avoidance, bitter memories and sweet anticipation…

It’s a seven-and-a-half minute journey between Embankment and the Elephant & Castle. It’s the journey of 253 lifetimes.

I hadn’t realised when I got this book that it actually started life as an online “interactive novel” – which is still live (and charmingly retro in its sparse, HTML-only design!). The book was published in 1998, so the website was presumably around shortly before that. In a lot of ways it really feels like a project of the late 90s, the early days of the web, when people were still wondering what to do with it all. The “interactive” nature of the online novel is basically that the whole thing is hyperlinked, so if passenger 163 mentions something to do with passenger 215, you can click through to see what passenger 215 was doing/thinking about. It’s an interesting way to explore the story, but I’m not sure I’d spend much time on it.

The book itself is a surprisingly gripping read. The one-page-per-character approach means that it’s perfect for dipping in and out of (on train journeys, for example!), and is varied enough to hold your interest. Some of the “stories” are stronger than others, but all are of a high standard – and the good ones are very good indeed. If you’re at all interested in reading or writing flash fiction I would certainly recommend this book – it’s a masterclass in how to construct a story in very few words.

I’ve mentioned the story a couple of times, but of course this isn’t a narrative as such. Nevertheless, there is a kind of story weaving through it: some of the passengers may know each other, or have run into each other previously without remembering them, and by reading through each of their pages in turn a wider picture reveals itself. For example, one passenger is telling her neighbour, a colleague, about a conversation she overheard on the phone involving two women apparently plotting a murder. Her neighbour is trying to comfort her, but on her page we find out that she knows that the call was staged as a practical joke. In the next carriage is the two womens’ boss, who was in on the joke, but is planning to use it as a way of framing someone else for his planned murder of his wife. A few carriages on is another man who works with them, who has noticed the boss acting odd, and plans to follow him home to see what he’s up to.

That’s the most extreme example I can think of, but the book is full of little micro-stories, some exciting and some mundane. There is also a larger, over-arching storyline that frames the whole thing, but as this is only first mentioned halfway through and only fully revealed at the end, I won’t give it away here!

The way the people on the train interact with each other (or don’t), record their reactions to and judgments of other characters, and react to things that happen on the train (some impromptu street theatre in one carriage, a vomiting drunk in another) all felt true to life. Although some of the references to London are understandably dated, anyone who has spent any time on the Tube will find much here that is familiar. I really enjoyed 253 for the slice-of-life feel it had, and although there were some stories I left dying to know what happened next, ultimately it was all very satisfying.

An interesting experimental book, that I would recommend to anyone interested in micro-fiction, or just looking for something to read in quick breaks.

Verdict: 3/5

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