REVIEW SUMMARY: Another literary experiment that failed to impress.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Brief portraits of 253 train passengers.
PROS: Intriguing concept; easy to read piecemeal.
CONS: Not very interesting.
BOTTOM LINE: More literary experiment than entertainment.
I’m not sure how I stumbled across Geoff Ryman’s 253 – The Print Remix. I guess I heard some positive buzz about it somewhere. I remember looking for it and finally picked it up a few years ago because the idea sounded so intriguing.
There is no story here at all, just a brief background. Imagine a seven-car passenger in London on a seven-minute ride between stops. Each of the seven cars seats 36 passengers. A fully occupied train, including driver, holds 253 people. The book devotes one page and exactly 253 words to describe several attributes about each character including appearance, secrets and thoughts. Oh, one bit of drama: the driver is asleep at the dead man’s switch.
As the introduction of the book explains, 253 is meant to appeal to the “Nosey-Parker” inside of us. I admit I found this idea appealing because I’m one of those people who used to like people-watching at airports. (You gotta be at the airport anyway, what else are you gonna do?) I always enjoyed the brief glimpses of people’s lives: grandparents meeting grandchildren for the first time; long-separated sweethearts; awkward reunions; people who you can tell just don’t get along. Why is he in such a hurry? What was she thinking when she bought that butt-ugly suitcase?
I figured that 253 would just be a book version of that same mellow activity. And I suppose it is in most respects, except that the experience is not quite the same. I knew there was no plot to speak of, but reading these passages was mostly boring, so much so in fact that I could not bring myself to finish the book. (I tried. The super-short “chapters” make it easy to read piecemeal.) The occasional good parts of the book weren’t really all that good at all; they just seemed that way by comparison to the other even-slower parts. I found the numerous car maps and footnotes to be slightly more entertaining than the prose itself – a bad sign. It was hard to make any fair opinion of the “characters” as 253 words was apparently inadequate to do so.
I guess I just have to chalk up another literary experiment that failed to entertain me. For the curious, the writing style is an example of “oulipo”, where literature is considered a game of language rather than a means of representing the world and usually involves some form of mathematics or numbers to create art. Oulipo was used in Thomas Disch’s classic novel 334 and, unfortunately, I wasn’t too enamored over that one either. Ryman’s 253 left me with the same impression: This was more literary experiment than it was entertainment.
But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. The complete text of 253 is available online, but without the book’s subtitle, The Print Remix.