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253 : maze with no exit
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A Maze with No Exit
Geoff Ryman's 253, a Novel for the Internet about London Underground in Seven Cars and a Crash
by David Dalgleish

0: Orientation
"The illusion of an orderly universe."1

Geoff Ryman's 253 cannot easily be described. Published on the Web in 1996 and then in print in 1998, it is a fiction whose subject is 253 people riding the Bakerloo Line of the London Underground on the morning of January 11, 1995, between 8:35 and 8:42 a.m. Each person is described in 253 words. Each description is subdivided into: "Outward appearance," "Inside information," and "What they are doing or thinking." A sequel, Another One along in a Minute2, is planned; it will be about the passengers occupying the train behind the one which crashes in 253.

In book form - a "print remix," as the subtitle would have it - 253 is over 350 pages long. It is not, however, a novel or a collection of short stories in any traditional sense, even though Ryman himself refers to it on his site as "a novel for the Internet about London Underground in seven cars and a crash."

253's closest literary relatives are other formally imaginative novel-length fictions, such as Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities or Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams. These works, simply because they are published in book form, encourage the reader to proceed sequentially, although it is not necessary to read them in that way. Rather than follow the traditional arc of story, they aggregate variations on a theme - time in Einstein's Dreams, and the city in Invisible Cities.

There are as many physical ways to read 253 as there are readers of it.

The experience of reading a book is always specific to each reader, but there are as many physical ways to read 253 as there are readers of it. The online version of the novel differs from the printed word only because it uses hyperlinks, yet this one device completely transforms the reading experience. Even though 253 represents Web design at its most basic - white background, black text, blue hyperlinks which turn purple after being used, ungainly tables, some rather primitive graphic elements - its permutations are, practically speaking, infinite.

I: Boarding
"Interactivity replaces curiosity about time with curiosity about space."

253 is not read as a series of consecutive events, or a series of disordered events which you can piece together into a narrative. Rather, everything that happens takes place within the same seven-minute segment of time. The reader has to choose where to go, moving amongst simultaneous events, rather than being borne through time by the current of story, as would be the case in a traditional novel or film.

I first read 253 in its printed form. As a book, it is organized in a tidy, straightforward manner. There is an introductory section, seven sections detailing the passengers of each of the seven cars, a concluding section ("The End of the Line") in which the train crashes, and an index. The index groups various characters under headings ranging from neutral and mundane ("Canada," "British Telecom," "Star Trek") to amusing and improbable ("Big Issue Love Chain," "Street Signs, Directions, Lack of in Britain").

As I imagine most readers do, I tend to read a book from first page to last. When reading 253 in book form, I started at the beginning and worked my way through to the end. I could have used the index to move around from one section to another, but I didn't. Instead, I read it as I would read any novel.

Reading 253 online was a radically different experience. The hyperlink replaced the next page as the path of least resistance through the text. Using the "Journey Planner" (a bitmap of the underground and the seven cars within it) and the links connecting individual text entries, I was free to wander at will, inventing my own reading experience within the framework created by Ryman:

253 = seven subway cars with 36 seats each = 252 passenger entries + one for the driver + ancillary written material (fake ads, passenger maps for each car, footnotes, and background)

These two formal principles - the hyperlink and the disposition of people in seven subway cars - underpin the architecture of 253. Both help to "spatialize" the experience of the story, which can no longer be seen as unfolding simply in time.

The passengers in 253 are (somewhat sinisterly) numbered, so I could in theory have replicated the experience of the book by proceeding from one entry to the next in numerical order. But I think it unlikely that anyone would read the work in such a linear fashion. The Web version instead encourages a haphazard, scattershot, partial approach. Rather than reading it all in one sitting, I sampled pieces of it at different times, and did not make a concerted attempt to read everything.

In its online form, 253 is a text to return to, to move around in, to be consumed - more like an encyclopedia than a novel. Eventually, one comes across entries that have already been read, for the text is circular: a maze with no exit.

II: In Motion
"It can make you feel omniscient, Godlike."

The characters in the Web version of 253 are hyperlinked on the basis of their commonalities - a shared interest, a mutual acquaintance, the same destination - or their physical proximity. For example: reading about passenger 132, Richard Thurlow, we learn that he works at "Lloyds Bank" and has friends at "Pall Mall Oil." Also, he feels cramped by "his neighbour" on the train, who is accidentally kicked by "the fellow opposite him."

Each of the phrases in quotations is a hyperlink: "Lloyds Bank" leads to passenger 34, Adele Driscoll, who works at the bank; "Pall Mall Oil" leads to passenger 150, Caroline Roffey, who works there; "his neighbour" and "the fellow opposite him" obviously lead to the descriptions of those particular passengers. The page describing each passenger who can be reached from Richard Thurlow's page also has several associative hyperlinks, which govern the reader's more or less random progress through the text.

Because of the way Ryman categorizes his information, reading each individual entry is like focusing a lens that sharpens our perception and understanding of the person under our scrutiny, increasing our empathy for them. We at first see only the surface appearance, then we learn more about the general circumstances of their life, and then we find out exactly what is on their mind at the point in time when 253 occurs. In the case of those passengers who remain on the train until the moment of the crash, the text becomes an exact catalogue of what will be destroyed.

253 is a dense cross-section of modern urban life, as various and banal and impassioned and resigned and funny and pathetic as the real thing. Following the myriad connections, we become like the angels in Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, experiencing moments of clarity and insight amid the babble of collective human consciousness.

Within the scope of these seven subway cars, these 253 people, these seven minutes, the reader is omniscient. But if 253 makes us feel like a god, as Ryman jokingly suggests on the Web site, it is an impotent god - powerless to intervene, whether amused by the ironies of life or appalled by the fate that befalls those trapped in the trains.

III. Coming to a Halt
"Nothing much happens."

At the time of its release, 253 seemed a surprising change of direction for its author. Ryman's first three novels are works of speculative fiction, and his fourth, Was, addresses the human need for invented stories, for impossible tales like The Wizard of Oz. But in the afterword to Was, Ryman describes himself as "a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism," so it is perhaps not so surprising that he abandoned the fantastic for the mundane in 253.

Superficially, it also seems as though 253 moves beyond the deep-rooted anguish that underpins Ryman's earlier work. Many of the entries on individual passengers are tinged with melancholy and frustration - they are often living lives which seem unsatisfying and stifled by routine - but the work as a whole could be seen as celebratory, embracing the contradictions and multiplicities that make up the cultural patchwork of London. Nevertheless, 253 is, I believe, a work of profound despair at heart - a rejection of the solace of fantasy.

The impulse of fantasy, in its purest form, is to tell stories that reconcile us to the world, that lead to closure and healing and integration. The Fisher King saves the wounded land; Dorothy defeats the witch and returns home renewed; Frodo (with a little help) casts the One Ring into Mount Doom. Similarly, in Ryman's fantasy works, there is an implicit belief in the possibility of redemption or peace, however hard-earned it may be. They offer the hope that we are part of a story that gives meaning to our lives, and even if that meaning is cruel or ironic or cheerless, it is, all the same, a meaning.

253 denies us meaning. In every respect, it stands in opposition to the impulse of fantasy, and in opposition to Ryman's earlier work. There is no story as such: in most of the passengers' descriptions, we can infer a story, based on who they are, their background, what they are thinking. But these are stories whose endings we cannot know.

The nonlinear nature of the text further thwarts any attempt to create a unified narrative. Depending on how one approaches it, the material can seem either chaotically disordered or arbitrarily organized. But it does not ultimately shape the world to offer us meaning. Or, to put it another way, it shapes the world to create an absence of meaning.

IV: Terminus
"Discover the horrible end."

More disturbing than any of these formal concerns is the one event that Ryman imposes on his plotless fiction. In the section entitled "The End of the Line," the train crashes. People die. What might otherwise be construed as a "slice-of-life" depiction of the everyday becomes something bleaker, something hopeless.

Despair may not be what you are likely to feel when you first delve into 253, but despair seems to be its engine, and Ryman makes no attempt to conceal the fatalism of his work. The subtitle on the site's home page tells us that there will be a crash, and the reader is directed to "The End of the Line" to find out about the end of each carriage's voyage. Throughout the work, we are shown people headed unknowingly toward oblivion, toward a random and meaningless death, impelled by mechanized routine. There is no story. There is only the interval between now and the end of the line. And the end of the line is the ultimate terminus: death.

253 is thus partly about the swift, dispassionate nature of death, its refusal to give us time to find the stories inherent within the jumbled events that make up our lives. In this light, it should not be such a shock to arrive at the end of the explanatory page of Ryman's site and read the following, apparently incongruous statement: "253 happens on January 11th 1995, which is the day I learned my best friend was dying of AIDS."

David Dalgleish is a writer living in Montreal. He has written book reviews for January Magazine, The New Reader, and Entropie and published film reviews online at Subjective Camera.

Notes :
1. The quotes are taken from Geoff Ryman's "253? Why 253?" [http://www.ryman-novel.com/info/why.htm] and "End of the Line" [http://www.ryman-novel.com/end/home.htm] on [http://www.ryman-novel.com].

2. The passengers of Another One along in a Minute are stuck behind the crashed train from 253 for five minutes, or 300 seconds, and Ryman encourages readers of his novel to submit 300-word descriptions of the people on the stalled train, which he may use for the new site.

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