I’ve known of 253 (a.k.a. Tube Theatre) for quite some time, but I’ve only just read it, after stumbling across the (Philip K Dick Award-winning) “print remix“ in the dealer’s room at Eastercon. Its original incarnation was as a website – which still exists, seemingly untouched and untweaked since it was built in 1996. Wikipedia would have me believe that Robert Arellano’s Sunshine 69 was “the World Wide Web’s first interactive novel”, published in June 1996; I can’t find an accurate date for 253‘s launch, but it seems reasonable to say that even if it came out after Arellano’s work, it was still very much in the vanguard of web-native hypertext fictions. I used to read Wired in ’96 – dead-tree editions, of course, imported from the States – and remember the repeated pre-emptive obituaries for print media, and announcements of the imminence of the hypertext novel as the primary literary form of The Future. The former looks more likely now than it ever did, but still a long way off, while the latter – but for a small fringe scene – has remained resolutely below the radar, for reasons that are more obvious in hindsight. (I’m not going to waffle on about the paucity of viable business models for online fiction at this point; I’ve done enough of that at Futurismic over the years.)
So, the facty bits. 253 is named for the number of seats on a standard Bakerloo Line tube train: seven carriages of 36 seats each, plus one driver up front. Each passenger gets their own page of story, limited to 253 words per entry (not counting footnotes), and arranged in three sub-heads: ‘physical appearance’, ‘inside information’, and ‘what [they] are doing or thinking’. There are footnotes: some pertinent and logical, some digressive and orthogonal. The print remix also has lots of po-moroborous extra material that both mocks and celebrates its own ironic lampooning of itself: adverts for non-existent products and services, witheringly sarcastic exhortations to become a writer, that sort of thing. In true metafictional tradition, Ryman himself appears as passenger 96, the fall-guy of a guerilla theatre troupe. And as an added bonus – especially for me – another passenger is reading a copy of Vurt by Jeff Noon.
The timeline is restricted to the few minutes between one station and the next, and the strict wordcount limit means that bringing in the external lives of the characters can only be done briefly; the narrative of 253 is momentary, collective and emergent, but it reaches out into the world beyond the train through the connections between some of the passengers – perhaps they work in the same place, or are pondering a similar topic. In the online version, many (though not all) of these are clickable links; with the print edition, the reader constructs them by progressing through the book and remembering previous characters.
253 isn’t an sf novel, but those familiar with Ryman’s work will recognise the keen eye for workaday tragedy and moments of personal transcendence he brings to the story. At turns bleak, uplifting, sad and silly – changing tone with the turn of a page – I was quite astonished at how much affect Ryman wrings out of the form. While reading it (which often took place on tube trains, though never the Bakerloo – doesn’t go anywhere I ever need to go, that one) I had some actuLOL moments, as well as a fair few where I had to blink away a suspicious stinging in the eyes. If anything, its temporality – rooted as it is in a very specific point in history – is its greatest strength, offering a snapshot of London and its people in 1996, as the fag-end of Thatcher’s reign burned right down to the filter.
I am very interested in constraints as a writing tool; not only do they erase the fear of the blank page to some extent, but they can produce unexpected and interesting results. 253 is a wonderful example of this in action.
There’s an interview in the Salon.com archives that catches Ryman in the process of converting the hypertext 253 for the print remix, and he discusses the different experiences of the two formats:
“253 with links is about what makes people the same, because you can follow through — the grandparent theme, the people thinking about Thatcher. It’s about the subliminal ways we’re linked and alike. You just read it passenger by passenger, and it’s about how different we all are. The links change the meaning of the novel. I think I’m going to like the print version more because it emphasizes more just how multi-various the cars are, but the linked version is fun.”
For one thing, the need to follow themes and create links unexpectedly generated ideas for characters. “For example, somebody works in a dry-cleaning shop and has decided she can’t do that so she’s learning how to be a taxi driver, so you say, how can I have a link with taxis? How can you have anything link with taxis on the tube?” He found a way: a character who’s come up with an automated system to install in cabs that would replace The Knowledge — the encyclopedic mental database rookie drivers of London’s black cabs spend years mastering in order to get a license.
“The other thing I found about the links,” Ryman says, “is that you have to be careful that they’re not a little bit unsubtle. You don’t want to deprive the reader of the fun of putting two and two together.” This has become more of a problem as he encodes the second batch of characters — the ones for cars five, six and seven. “The links make irony very, very easy. It’s almost too powerful a tool.”
I don’t have any primary sources to hand that provide a solid definition of hypertext fiction, but an aggregate of the secondary and other sources suggests it’s pretty loose: if the work partakes in hypertextual methods (which includes the hyperlinks that are such a daily part of our web-based lives, but also their forerunners, like the “turn to page [x]” instructions in choose-your-own-adventure books), then it gets admittance to the club. (I dare say getting closer to contemporary practitioners of the form would reveal all the usual factional disputes and taxonomic warfare, however.) The emphasis tends to be on the non-linearity of narrative that hypertext permits, and the web version of 253 provides opportunities for random exploration via embedded links providing extracontextual connections between passengers (i.e. connections that exist beyond the confines of their being on the same train), and maps of the tube cars that let you browse passenger pages at random (or at will, if there’s any difference). Clicking around it now, a week or so after finishing the print version, I’m quite surprised by the degree of defamiliarisation produced by the hypertext format: unless you approached 253 with some sort of coherent reading strategy, it might take quite a while to locate a coherent narrative, and – counter to that – there’s the lingering nervousness that I’ve come to recognise as the fear of disappearing down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole for a few hours after popping over there to check a date. (Does the German language have a word for this fear yet?)
The 253 print remix provides you with an off-the-shelf reading strategy, and in the process reveals the linearity inherent in the novel. After all, it’s set on a train – and what could be more linear than a train, with the driver’s cabin up front and a neat succession of carriages following along behind, one way only, please mind the gap? Reading the print edition from front to back allows the emergent and branching subnarratives to accrete in the mind, as if your brain were caching the pages to which you’ll find yourself linked later on; reading from front to back means you can be certain that you’ve read the lot and not missed anyone (or anything); reading from front to back also suggests strongly (to me at least) that it may well have been written from front to back, and coded for hypertextuality after completion. I was surprised at how effective a novel the print version is, though the few contemporary reviews I can find online suggest that 253‘s bitty and piecemeal structure was off-putting for others.
However, the narrative experienced when reading is a collaboration between writer and reader, and form influences the work that emerges from that partnership. And so, one must assume, do paradigms and schemas of narrative; so, how much of my feeling that 253‘s original/”natural” form was linear is a function of me having been raised as a reader of linear narratives delivered in a linear medium? Would a web-native Millennial find the book baffling and dull, preferring instead to skip around within the online text, guided by the links and their whimsy, uncaring of whether there were good bits they’d passed over, or something vital they’d missed? In other words, I’m wondering whether Ryman’s assumption that the medium changes the experience is not, with hindsight, slightly backward; perhaps it’s familiarity with the medium that modulates the experience.
Having said that, I now find myself wondering if this isn’t why I have to maintain a lot of discipline with respect to social media like Twitter if I want to get anything done: the thought of missing out on some nugget of news or wonder keeps me grazing anxiously, one eye on the conveyor-belt of pasture. Am I perhaps a member of the last generation that ever imagined – even casually or naively – that they could perceive totalities? Are web-native youngsters intuitively clued in to the fact that there’s too much stuff for them ever to consume anything but a fraction of it? Or am I just jealously imagining non-existent capabilities in them that I wish I had for myself? I’m still very leery of Eeyoresque technoLuddism that blames the failings of [$demographic] on [$newTechnology], but it’d be foolish to completely dismiss the notion that some sort of paradigmatic shift in attitudes to knowledge might emerge from a sudden and unprecedented flowering of access to knowledge…
[ 1 - Technohistorical digression: it's amusing to note that the design and layout of the Print Remix is far in advance of that of the original hypertext, what with the comparative crudity of the HTML protocols at the time; worth remembering, next time someone bitches about lazy formatting in ebooks. ]