253, or Tube Theatre, by Geoff Ryman, was published online in 1996. In its form, this fictional hypertext has much in common with works created by members of OULIPO. Indeed, the text is an example of constrained writing, in which the number 253 dictates many aspects of form. The piece contains 253 fragments connected through hyperlinks. As indicated in the author’s preface, each fragment, minus its subtitle, contains 253 words. The concept is as follows: the work is a description, in a form resembling that of a catalogue, of 253 individuals found in a London Underground train made up of 7 carriages each containing 36 passengers. The remaining individual is the driver. In a systematic fashion, each fragment describes a passenger from three different angles: the individual’s outward appearance, their “inside information”1, and what they are doing or thinking.
Ryman’s work constitutes an important contribution to the then emerging field of hypertext. The author uses his medium in an admirable manner, creating a story that is developed on a spatial rather than on a temporal level. Indeed, the sum of the fragments covers a very short period of time, ie. the duration of a ride on the Underground. The breadth of Ryman’s undertaking is revealed through the links (both hypertextual and social) that are established between the 253 characters who compose the piece. As there is no actual storyline, it is the author’s study of the differing individualities that holds fascination for the reader. Ryman establishes a complex network of interpersonal relations. For example, colleagues are on their way to work, each in a different carriage. Characters frequently make up stories about people they come across while they are on the train. It would doubtless be accurate to say that the central theme of the piece is the experience of daily life for the anonymous city-dwelling multitudes. The characters are rarely isolated, and frequently they know or at least are acquainted with many other characters on the train. These social ties are always materialized through a hyperlink that allows the reader to navigate between fragments, thus perceiving quite clearly the various connections between the work’s different characters.
Subverting the traditional plot
One of the significant aspects of Ryman’s text is that, from the outset, it challenges the reader’s expectations regarding the presence of a plot, and removes any form of suspense. In his introduction, the author informs the reader that at the end of its course, the train in which the characters are travelling will derail. What is more, the reader can go directly to the description of this final scene. Thus, it is the discovery of the various individualities that make up the work, rather than the possibility of witnessing a story as it unfolds, that holds interest for the reader of 253 or Tube Theatre. The absence of an actual plot or even of a sequence of events renders inadequate the notion of story, thus making the experience of reading the work a type of exploration rather than a progression towards an ending.
Another noteworthy aspect of 253 or Tube Theatre is its surprising representation of the contemporary individual. The subway, a common mode of transportation for the urbanite, becomes in Ryman’s text a means of representing the cohabitation of citizens who lead entirely different lives. Solitude, suffering, but also the incapacity to communicate, are highlighted in the text. Albeit in a simplified manner, given that each character has their own descriptive file, Ryman presents a sort of cross section of society : professionals, students, homeless individuals, artists travel alongside each other on the train, which we can understand as metaphor of life following its inexorable course. Viewed from this perspective, 253 can seem to hold a rather fatalistic view of life, given that we know from the outset that the characters are heading towards a predetermined end, i.e. the accident which concludes the piece.
Though diverse social groups are represented in the text, it is worth mentioning that a significant number of the characters are artists. Many individuals are more or less closely concerned with the creative process. For example, the fourth passenger is busy making up an alternate ending for John Landis’ film An American Werewolf in London, and the eleventh passenger is a pianist. The 33rd passenger is meditating on modern art, her thoughts focusing on Kandinsky’s work. While the character is pondering whether or not Kandinsky was synaesthetic, the individual next to her is thinking about the thesis he would like to write on Dickens. Throughout Ryman’s piece, the large number of artists causes a strange effect, as it creates a gap in the pervading illusion of realism. Indeed, it is clear that artists are overrepresented in Ryman’s text, which leads us to guess that the author has a bias toward or, at least, a sympathy for those engaged in the creative process. The frequent meditations on art also lend an essayistic dimension to the discourse.
Ryman’s work thus has many noteworthy qualities, not the least of which is the fact that it represents a significant contribution to the new writing practices emerging on the Web. The piece does indeed constitute one of the better specimens of early hypertextual fiction, insofar as its brings together an innovative form and an undeniable quality of writing.