I first heard about Geoff Ryman’s novel ‘253’ as a recommendation from Michael Kindness on one of my favourite podcasts ‘Books on the Nightstand’ and it instantly appealed. I then slightly obsessed about it to the point that TCO bought it me as a surprise. Living in London for as long as I have (over a decade) I am still discovering new parts of it, have become rather obsessed in some parts of its history and have begun recently to want to read more books about it and its people, even if they are fictional. ‘253’ is very much a London novel, it is also a great novel if, like me, you really like to get snippets into the average man and/or woman’s life and have a bit of a nosey.
In London you cannot really avoid the underground, ok you can but you know what I mean, and getting on the underground means that you surround yourself with other people daily. People you know nothing about and yet don’t you occasionally find yourself wondering who they are and what their stories might be. Well ‘253’ is a novel, though in some ways it reads like a succession of very short stories that can interweave, that looks at one particular train during seven and a half minutes between Embankment and Elephant and Castle on one particular day and a very fateful journey in 1995.
As the blurb itself states “a Bakerloo line train with no one standing and no empty seats carries 252 passengers. The driver makes 253” and this is the story of each one of those people as they go through what is a daily routine to them and we step into their thoughts (all done in just 253 words per character) and learn a lot about them and why they have ended up in that particular train surrounded by those particular people. What Ryman does which only makes the book all the more clever is that on the train are people who know each other and so as the book goes you get additional twists to certain tales you have already seen. Coincidence and fate do seem to be a theme in the book the whole way through.
I did think writing 253 characters in the same amount of words would make the book somewhat repetitive and the fact each character is summed up in the sections “outward appearance”, “inside information” and “what they are doing or thinking” would make it all rather formulaic and possibly a little bit dull. It wasn’t at all. Each character is very individual from Estelle who is in love with Saddam Hussein, Justin a journalist posing as a homeless man, Jason who has just discovered he is made for older women, James who anaesthetises ill Gorilla’s for a living… I could go on and on there are so many marvellous characters and tales to choose from.
Reading 253 on the Bakerloo Line
I do think part of the success with the book for me was that I didn’t read it as a novel. I would read about a carriage of characters or just one or two between other things because if you read it in one go or maybe it was the only book you read for a week I think the charm could wear off and that would be a real shame as this book is brilliant. In fact what proves its brilliant further is that as someone who doesn’t like footnotes or when an author steps into the work to give you extra titbits, I was fascinated by Ryman’s.
I was interested to learn that this was originally a book published on the internet before it was bought and became available in ‘the print remix’ (it has been republished this year) and how the author felt it changed in differing formats. Online it showed similarities between these strangers and in book form it does show you the major differences. I found it an exciting, funny and refreshing way to read a book and Ryman is definitely an author I now want to read much more of.
A book that will: be perfect for you if you love books about London, or cities in general and their inhabitants, or if you just like a nosey into people’s lives. If you like original fiction then this is also ideal as it’s something very different. I think this will become a cult classic. 9/10
Savidge suggests perfect prose partners;
Anthropology by Dan Rhodes – a collection of 101 short pieces of fiction all told in 101 words and done just as brilliantly as ‘253’ is.
The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills – if you like reading about big cities and the people who work in them then this comic tale of bus drivers and their depot should just do the trick.
A big thanks for the recommendation, which I know wasn’t aimed specifically at me, from Michael Kindness. I also have some of Anne Kingman’s recommendations in the TBR and will report back on those in good time. Have you ever heard about a book on the radio, TV or via a podcast and needed to read it pretty much there and then? Was it as good as you hoped? Have any of you read ‘253’ and what did you think? Which other Geoff Ryman books could you recommend, I currently quite fancy ‘Was’ have any of you read that?