253, an early Internet novel
July 27, 2011 3:37 PM   Subscribe

253 is a novel written for the Internet. Originally published in 1996, it is composed of 253 stories of 253 words about each of the 253 passengers on a London Underground train, headed for a crash.
posted by yellowbinder (29 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I remember reading this some time ago. When Steve Almond came to speak to my Creative Writing class a long time ago (he was pushing My Life in Heavy Metal around that time) he had recommended it to the class.

It's an interesting idea, and a literary endeavor worth noting, but I found it deserved a B-, at best. I'd say, read it for the overall concept, but don't expect it to be something that will keep you enthralled. It's kind of all over the place at times.

Just my opinion.
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 3:52 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh yes yes yes. 253 has been one of the all time most influential works of electronic literature. It's wonderful.

Some friends and I have prototyped an iPad version and are hoping to find a way to get the work republished.
posted by honest knave at 3:54 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, Geoff Ryman, an acclaimed scifi writer, is himself worthy of a Metafilter post someday. Small Beer Press have been republishing a fair number of his works in recent months (all Small Beer posts tagged Geoff Ryman).
posted by honest knave at 3:57 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I love Geoff Ryman. Was is one of those books that really sticks in my head. I have 253 but it never grabbed me the way Was did.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:01 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I liked Was a lot, and a collection of short stories called The Child Garden - but 253 did that interesting thing where I read it and though "OK, this is a proof of concept".
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:06 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, Agrippa. It was supposed to delete itself as you read it.
posted by infinitewindow at 4:18 PM on July 27, 2011

I have that (printed) book. I remember one of the chapters was actually about a pigeon that flew into one of the carriages.
posted by web-goddess at 4:33 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

It was supposed to delete itself as you read it.

Hmm. That'd be something.

Your link says they tried to effect deletion via light sensitive ink that disappears after exposure to sunlight. But it didn't work.

How might one make it work?

My first thought is a digital device in which you press a button to move ahead to the next "page", which button also deletes the previous page.

But it's more fun to think about a non-digital way of doing this.

Disappearing ink is out.

Disintegrating paper? Probably it wouldn't be durable enough for manufacturing. But what if upon opening the book, a seal is broken, and some combination of chemicals (?) makes contact with the pages (in the binding, perhaps?), gradually turning the pages to dust?

A pledge from the reader to burn each page upon reading it?
posted by notyou at 4:47 PM on July 27, 2011

I have a print copy of 253, but I've never read the whole thing. Something is lost in the translation from web to print, I think. Perhaps I'll give it another try and read it online, now that I've been reminded of it.

That said, much of the book is little more than character descriptions which, to me, makes for a very dull read.
posted by asnider at 4:50 PM on July 27, 2011

I wrote a novel that deleted itself before I wrote it. Want to buy the rights to a ream of copier paper? Anyone? I got some nice pens here too...
posted by Elmore at 4:58 PM on July 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Apparently my previous comment was NSFW.

Anyone hiring?
posted by Elmore at 5:02 PM on July 27, 2011

Randomly picked this up at the library last year. It's a cool book.
posted by threeants at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2011

Wow, I hadn't thought of that book in forever. I read the hard copy years ago because I borrowed it from a friend. I did enjoy it as I recall.
posted by Kitteh at 5:05 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

yeah, I have a copy on my shelf. Never finished it, not interesting enough.

Content remains king.
posted by wilful at 5:11 PM on July 27, 2011

That said, much of the book is little more than character descriptions which, to me, makes for a very dull read.

I skimmed several and leapt ahead to the "end of the line," which was less dull.

From what I can tell from my incomplete survey, the short character writeups are mostly character descriptions, as you say: Appearance, background, a couple of lines about what's happening at the moment.

Despite riding on a train, each of these characters is motionless. Nobody moves forward in time. But they can't, can they? At least not very far. They have to stay in the same place and time as the other 252 riders, so we can click the links in whatever order and peek at them, too.

And if nobody is moving forward in time, then there's no plot. So it's dull.

But when we get to the end of the line -- and the train stops -- everybody is finally in motion, doing stuff, acting on the fears and impulses we've been made privy to. That's interesting and fun.

If perhaps each of the 253 word passenger write-ups had been written without the rigid structure ("Outward Appearance" "Inside Information" "What she is doing or thinking") I think the author might have given himself a little more room to add some motion -- some plot -- for each character.

For example, Passenger 40 has a moment when she
Feels pity and horror for the man next to her -- he may not even know that he stinks. She has stood it since Baker Street and now has a terrible headache. She explodes and says perhaps too much ... something about burnt tyres
that would make a terrific little scene, one in which the other background information given under the "Inside Information" heading could be carefully woven.

Anyhow. I think it's a terrific thing.
posted by notyou at 5:15 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Perhaps it is not as exciting to you younguns because you weren't in London when it came out back in the day. I remember being on the Tube reading the print remix. I was very much a meta thing full of fully realized characters. So much of it was groundbreaking at in its time. Think of it as an artifact of the earlier days of the internet.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 6:10 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

That said, much of the book is little more than character descriptions which, to me, makes for a very dull read.

You should pick up The Spoon River Anthology sometime. It'll change your mind about whether a book based only on character descriptions is dull or not.
posted by hippybear at 6:43 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your link says they tried to effect deletion via light sensitive ink that disappears after exposure to sunlight. But it didn't work.

How might one make it work?

Could you manufacture a book where all the pages are stuck together, perhaps with a thin line of glue around the margins of each page, so that you literally have to tear each page out to reach the next?

(This is a very interesting idea.)
posted by Tiresias at 7:05 PM on July 27, 2011

Perhaps it is not as exciting to you younguns because you weren't in London when it came out back in the day.

Even today. I recently worked near the south bank for a year, and many of the descriptions continue to ring true.
posted by honest knave at 7:52 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Full disclosure: I am huge Ryman fan and got to talk to him at a recent convention!
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 8:10 PM on July 27, 2011

Pity they can't edit it down to 135 stories that are 135 characters long. Then they can add the hashtag #135 and post it on Twitter.
posted by happyroach at 8:48 PM on July 27, 2011

Agrippa was not by Geoff Ryman, it was by William Gibson.

(Disclaimer: I know and like Geoff and think his work is generally excellent.)
posted by cstross at 8:57 PM on July 27, 2011

I loved 253, it seemed to me like a B-Side to George Perec's La vie mode d'emploi. Was was great too. I love me some Geoff Ryman.
posted by kandinski at 10:17 PM on July 27, 2011

Remember reading the paperback years ago. Only scene I really remember is the pigeon chapter.
posted by lloyder at 2:07 AM on July 28, 2011

I read the printed book of this as a teenager and loved it. A few years ago I rediscovered it online and still thought it was wonderful. I couldn't help but notice, however, just how many redheads there apparently are on the Tube!

For those who enjoyed 253 because of the realism of its descriptions of Tube characters, may I recommend King Solomon's Carpet, by Barbara Vine? It has enough plot and action to satisfy notyou*, I believe, and the Underground is as much of a character as any of the flesh-and-blood people in it. It's a dark and multifaceted mystery that is also very human.

*notyou, I agree with your point about the stuckness-in-time of the character sketches in 253, but that's actually one of the things I enjoy about it.
posted by daisyk at 4:09 AM on July 28, 2011

It is indeed a good book and an interesting idea, but I should admit that I read the printed version. Based on this thread it seems that most people also read the printed book. Makes me think that the original electronic format may just be incidental and not all that relevant to the actual story.
posted by maybeandroid at 4:57 AM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow. Thank you for this post.

I am failing categorically to pull my thoughts about 253 into any kind of coherent form just now. But I have been up all night reading the whole thing, and... to me, it's pretty sublime. Perhaps it's because my own Subjectivity Revelation, when I was fourteen, came about on a greyhound bus. That was the moment I realized, with a force I think most people manage to skip, that all of the people on the bus with me had their own lives, their own preoccupations, their own stories, and they had nothing to do with me at all. That was a life-changing moment, and it's led to an unshakeable respect for the essential, well, personhood of every individual. I don't have to like 'em-- I very often don't. But as a humane and thinking person, I do have to acknowledge that they have their own reasons to be what they are and do what they do. They may not even be good reasons. Hell, a lot of my reasons aren't good reasons either. But they seem by their nature pretty compelling to the person going around believing them.

Reading this thing was rather special. It's the kind of project I could never imagine anyone but me being interested in, honestly. But I've often thought that I (and nobody else) would love to read a completely exhaustive history of someone else's life, his/her thoughts, the experiences and reactions that made someone who he/she is. I'd like to read a lot of them. I'd love to understand someone else's subjective experience more deeply. And, while 253 isn't that, it's definitely along the same lines. All of those characters are *people*. In those 253 words each, you get a real impression of a human, with a life. And they're all different, thinking about different things. And thinking about them randomly, and living or dying according to chance. Not being judged-- the writer certainly threw in a little morality and pathos, but he "saved" some unpleasant characters and sent some completely innocuous ones to die. The feeling of randomness is affecting me right now as well. It's somehow freeing, when combined with the benevolent Recording Angel of the omniscient writer, immortalizing these (imaginary) people all the same, whether they die or they go back to surface level in an imaginary London from decades ago to go on with their imaginary lives. I suppose that helps me see a little more what it is that's so attractive to people about the idea of a god.

There's also the fact that I visited London for the first time this spring, and I fell madly in love with the Tube while there. (Yeah, yeah, London-dwellers, step back for a second from the irritation and tell me after thinking about it for a minute that it's not a fucking remarkable feat of engineering. If you don't think so yet, try living in innumerable American cities *without* anything like that.) And it seems I'll be moving there in a year or so. There are a lot of reasons, I know, that this resonated with me and it wouldn't have with many people. But oh my, it did, it really did.

Sorry for the book report. I'm just reacting, and impressed. I don't find that many things that affect me so. I guess I feel compelled to express to the Big Empty Room of the internet that I found this thing great. Not in the sense of super-cool and awesome, though yeah, that's there too. But to me, someone explicitly devoted to the opposite of solipsism, it also merits the designation Great.

So yes, again, thank you. I had missed this until now. I am glad that I know it exists.

(I think the electronic form was very helpful in allowing one to realize the connections between the passengers, btw. There were a lot I likely wouldn't have noticed without the shiny blue convenience of hyperlinks.)
posted by Because at 5:44 AM on July 28, 2011

253 is a fun read, and it's also the sort of book that repays short bursts of attention. In a perfect meta-twist, it's a great book to read while commuting on the subway...

Ryman's 2001 book Lust (I'm not even going to link to it), on the other hand, is quite possibly the very worst novel I have ever read. It's juvenile beyond all reckoning and just plain dull, even when the events happening are intended to be fantastical and amazing.
posted by yellowcandy at 9:23 AM on July 28, 2011

For more info on Agrippa, see this deliciously comprehensive MeFi post from '08, including a link to a site that runs an emulation of the text as it was presented on diskette - where you would load a program that would display the poem line by line, and delete each line of text from the code of the disk itself after you advanced.
posted by FatherDagon at 10:33 AM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

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