Back in 1996, Canadian writer Geoff Ryman conceived the unique idea for 253 as a website. Now that’s all very predictable these days, but 21 years ago this would have been like now deciding to exist by taking a selfie every 10 seconds – utter madness. The website was a hit, though, and this led to the 1998 publication of this novel, which can be summarised as a character study of 253 individuals on 253 seats of a tube carriage of the London underground.
All 253 pages are dedicated to a solitary individual, with Ryman spinning out a short tale (a character study, if you will) of each person making a trek for a momentary iota in their lives towards something, whether positive or not, in the distance. It’s innovative stuff and highly enjoyable, poignant too, with this also surely one of the first internet novels out there.
Travelling between Embankment and Elephant & Castle on January 11th 1995, we have 253 individuals with their bums parked on 253 seats of your standard London tube. Well, there are 252 humans, to be precise, and one other individual who is eventually revealed to be a pigeon who has inadvertently made its way into the underground.
If you’ve ever been to London (we lived there for two years ages back) and, more precisely, been on the London underground, you’ll know it’s all rather magical at first. There are rushing noises, these a generally quite salubrious sense of humidity, air rushes in from unexpected angles as tube trains rush on into stations, and everything goes at a Hell of a rate.
Once it becomes part of your routine, though, its flaws (severe delays and technical problems, mainly) became all too apparent. Mr. Wapojif remembers sitting stuck underground Hammersmith for two hours once with a signal failure, with no explanation from the driver. No one on the carriage said a word during the whole thing.
Anyway, 253 apes this London bubble of obliviousness and the book essentially becomes about choosing your favourite character from the 253 individuals. There are all sorts of strange tales afoot but, for us, our favourite was a jovial older lady who found it hysterically funny her uncle wanted to murder her – yes, this appealed to our dark sense of humour, but there are 252 others to pick from here so go crazy, eh?
The significance of the date, incidentally, is revealed in the introduction to the book – on that day, Ryman found out a close friend of his was HIV positive. So, there’s some serious weight behind the novel despite its jovial undertones, which is where it stands out – from page to page, it’s an emotional journey through the lives of individuals. Next time you’re on public transport, stare at the person near you and think: “Gee… that person could really do with losing some weight.” Or something more constructive, it’s up to you.
Ryman the Lecturer
In researching what Ryman is up to now, based on this book we last read as students back in 2003, we were pleasantly surprised to find the 66 year old is working at Manchester University as lecturer of Creative Writing. Wouldn’t you know it, we’re from bloody Manchester! Ryman has clearly been about the world, as he grew up in Canada but moved to the US of A aged 11, and is now over here in rainy old England.
Ryman has written 10 books and won 14 awards for his writing, so this is a big thumbs up to one Canadian gentleman who caught on a prescient wave in the mid-1990s, penned an internet novel, has perfected his craft, is now helping others do the same, and is living in one of the best cities on Earth. You go, sir! You go.