Reviews from Lord Taylor of Glencoe
253: Geoff Ryman, July 7—10, 2015
My rating: ♦♦◊◊◊
Ryman takes one of the most fascinating aspects of life and dedicates a whole book to it in 253. It is set in a London Underground train, which consists of seven carriages each with 36 seats. That’s a total of 252 passengers, plus the driver.
Ryman hones in on the fact that 253 lives have, very temporarily, intersected. Each person is both the main character in their own life, and a supporting actor in the lives of 252 others. For seven minutes, all of their journeys have aligned. It’s an incredibly thought-provoking idea.
The structure of 253 is straightforward. Each character is the star for 253 words, in which their appearance and thought process is explained. We get an insight into these 253 lives, all for just a handful of paragraphs (albeit with some interesting and generally witty footnotes).
While this itself is very intriguing, in practise it does lose its appeal after the first few people. There is no particular narrative or plot; nothing that moves the ‘story’ on. When 253 began its life in 1996, it did so online. Everything that connected the characters, from experience to attitude to situations, is hyperlinked and emphases the countless connections we all have to absolute strangers. In what is subtitled The Print Remix, we lose this and without a hugely powerful short term memory, you’re unlikely to pick up on this. Instead, the book can only really be approached in print order (which is layout order of the train), and it’s what distinguishes the characters that it noticeable.
There is a conclusion, The End of the Line, that is designed to shock. It seems unnecessary. The point of 253 seems to be the trivialities that bind us, and so a more defined shared experience is at odds with the premise of the rest of the book.
I don’t think Ryman has done a bad job here; far from it. 253 shows evidence of deep thought and careful construction. It allows the reader to dwell on some of the most incredible intricacies of life, and has a warm, charming tone about it. Particularly as the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 attacks is marked in the UK, this is perhaps more than any other piece, a work of pure humanity. However, its translation into print has robbed it of the ability to lay bare those connections. Though an index is provided, it’s not quite the same. What was, in its original form, a fascinating web just falls apart into 253 splinters which, on their own, are not particularly interesting or entertaining,