The Rear-View Mirror: 253 (1994)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Geoff Ryman’s novel 253 was published in print in 1996, but it saw daylight on the internet in 1994. It’s about a London tube train on the Bakerloo line, travelling southbound from Embankment to Elephant & Castle. It’s a seven-minute ride, with stops at Waterloo and Lambeth North. This is from the foreword: “There are seven carriages on a Bakerloo Line train, each with 36 seats. A train in which every passenger has a seat will carry 252 people. With the driver, that makes 253.” And this is the novel for you: it contains 253 characters, each of them travelling on the train for those seven minutes. There are 253 entries in the book, each 253 words long. Repetitive? Well, yes, but boring? Not to me.

There are several advantages with a high-concept novel such as this: you can stop reading anywhere because you don’t have to remember any plot lines – it’s a train ride, people get on, people get off, mostly they stay in their seats. What makes it such a varied read is that first, Ryman gives you the name and outward appearance, so that you are likely to make wrong assumptions, and then Ryman gives you inside information, and then he tells you what this person is doing or thinking. There is minimal plot, and you can start reading 253 anywhere – just open the book.

Or try the online version. The advantage of reading 253 online is that it emphasizes the connections between the characters. Those connections seem to be random, but of course, they are anything but. You can klick on the links in one character’s description to get to another character or a place because they are somehow connected, or of importance. The printed version does give you that link not on the same page, but maybe many pages later, or not at all. Novel and webpage are two very different reading experiences.

And the text is one golden treasure trove for character description. I mean, where is the novel that gives you 253 different characters? I am not sure if Dickens has managed to pull that one off, even in his longest texts. And Ryman’s technique is so effective that there can never ever be another novel like 253 without reminding the reader of the original.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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