Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Strangers On A Train

By Leonard Gill

253: The Print Remix, By Geoff Ryman, St. Martin’s Griffin, 366 pp., $14.95 (paper)

AUGUST 31, 1998:  Here’s the setup: A seven-car train running on the Bakerloo Line of London’s Underground leaves Embankment Station at 8:35 a.m. on January 11, 1995, and takes one-and-a-half minutes to reach its next stop, Waterloo. It waits 30 seconds. Two minutes later, it reaches Lambeth North and waits another 30 seconds. Another three minutes and it reaches Elephant and Castle. Time: 8:42 a.m. Total travel time: about seven-and-a-half minutes for its full load (counting 36 seats per car, plus driver) of 253 passengers.

Here’s what happens: The driver, Mr. Tahsin Celikbilekli, falls asleep, overshoots Elephant and Castle, and people die.

And here’s what Geoff Ryman does with this fictional scenario in 253 inside its timeframe of just seven-and-a-half minutes: 253 characters get exactly 253 words each (excluding headings and footnotes) divided into three sections: Outward appearance, Inside information, and What she (or he) is doing or thinking.

“Outward appearance” is just that: notes on clothing, shoes, haircut, body type, body language, coloring, facial expression, lack of facial expression, along with any carry-ons (briefcase, party favors, whiskey, knife, tote bag, whatever). “Helps you to decide if you want to read more about that particular person.” You usually do. For example, Passenger 12, Car 1, Ms. Gina Horst: “Looks either fed up or not quite awake.” See, already you’re hooked. Or Passenger 38, Car 1, Mr. Andre Stanley: “White Levis jeans, white socks, black shoes, salt-and-pepper hair, healthy pink complexion. A young person into retro fashion would kill to know where Andre finds his clothes.” (He’s an Episcopal priest.)

“Inside information” goes deeper, offers key facts to support or contradict appearances: job info, ethnic background, income, family problems, work habits, connection to fellow passengers, outside interests, love life, mental state, moral fiber. Some passengers are “very interesting. Others are not.” (This is true.)

“What she (or he) is thinking or doing” is again just that. “Some are thinking positive thoughts. Others are up to no good at all. Some of them take decisive actions. Most of them simply sit and think.” This category runs the gamut, from stomach activity, idle fiddling, and professional or personal entanglements to states of certifiable insanity. (The next time you’re in traffic, see if you aren’t covering these very bases well inside seven-and-a-half minutes. Just don’t go the way of Mr. Milton Richards: “Jesus is telling Milton that he must kill his stepdaughter.” Or a guy named Who: He thinks he’s a pigeon.)

And that’s it, per passenger, per page, over several hundred pages, in a project the author began posting on the Internet in 1996 and that’s seen its way into print as a “remix” and exercise in the alienation effect.

But relax. As Ryman notes, “THIS IS AN EZI-ACCESS NOVEL. It’s reader-friendly. Compare it with other novels. You’ll see the difference right away! Everything is clearly labeled. Each part is divided into the same, repeating sections. ... No more forgetting where you are! No more endless descriptions! ... [R]ead as much as you like, when you like.”

No assembly, no batteries required either. Maps, mock ads, bogus questionnaires, and authorial devices going as far back as Tristram Shandy included. And it comes with a bonus index of the characters for effortless cross-referencing, plus a closing chapter, “The End of the Line,” billed as “Sensation and violence at last! Discover the horrible end of the carriage of your choice!!!” You see what I mean by alienation effect.

What’s harder for me to convey is the imagination and organization it took for Ryman to put this thing together, keep it together, and keep us from exiting early, say, at Waterloo or Lambeth North (as many passengers, in fact, do). 253’s very randomness, its tediousness are as random and tedious as life, but at least its pages come in quick bursts and with the spirit of William Blake, who makes a ghostly appearance in an extended, especially lovely footnote to go with Passenger 134 in Car 4, Leon De Marco.

Other footnotes aren’t as lengthy, aren’t half as poetic, but do deliver the goods even if they’re a bit off-track, as in the following note appended to Passenger 143, a woman who possesses the key to the Margaret Thatcher school of beauty – constant maintenance:

“No one who has seen documentary footage of David Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy Stardust at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 can doubt his influence on Mrs. Thatcher. She appropriated Ziggy’s makeup and general air of warm androgyny.” (The combination of Caligula eyes and Marilyn Monroe lips which Thatcher shares with Mick Jagger the author borrows from a physiognomic reading by Francois Mitterrand.)

There’s more here than fancy footwork with footnotes, though, just as there’s more than meets the eye to any life and particularly the lives led in 253. The art of the short-short story has just gone up a notch, and the newfound master is Geoff Ryman. If you doubt me, check with Passenger 148, a Miss Helen Thistlethwaite, or Passenger 197, one Jim Haigh, who “prods the numb spot in his soul that doesn’t want anything and fears for his future.”

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