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Book 4

  1. Matheson, Richard — I Am Legend (161 pages)
  2. McCarthy, Cormac — No Country for Old Men (307 pages)
  3. Dexter, Gary — Why Not Catch 21?: The Stories Behind the Titles (213 pages)
  4. Ryman, Geoff — 253 (366 pages)

Page count: 1047.

"A Bakerloo line tube train with no one standing and no empty seats carries 252 passengers. The driver makes 253. They all have their own secret histories, their own thoughts about themselves and their travelling neighbours. And they all have one page, totalling exactly 253 words, devoted to them." So begins the description on the back cover of 253. Combined with the snappy cover art (resembling a Tube map in motion), I was too intrigued not to snatch this book up.

I have mixed feelings. Each character's story was divided into three sections: "Outward appearance," "Inside information," and "What he/she is doing or thinking." I thought that to work within such a strict format — 253 stories, each 253 words and divided into three sections, told as these 253 people share a seven-minute train ride from Embankment to Elephant and Castle — reflected the constraints of classical-era music, where the number of movements in a piece were prescribed by convention, soloists and ensembles followed a well-defined script in opposition to each other, and the music just about always consisted of statements of a principal and sometimes a secondary theme in the tonic harmony, restatement in the dominant harmony, development of the themes following a recognized harmonic map, and a resolution of themes back in the tonic. Within these constraints composers found a world of expressivity and invention. Why couldn't it work in literary form? It was an intriguing experiment.

Unfortunately, it never rose substantially higher than "experiment" for me. Many, perhaps even most, of the individual descriptions were interesting. It was fascinating and even humbling to see the same things from the perspectives of several different individuals. The many different ways in which people's lives intersected were fun to discover, and the various footnotes providing insights into the history of the Bakerloo line, the Lambeth, Waterloo, and Elephant areas and its various institutions, and even into American-English cultural differences (the author is a Canadian who spent many years in America before emigrating to England) were informative.

But about halfway through I wavered. The premise didn't provide enough glue to sustain a compelling story arc through the length of the novel. And I certainly couldn't remember everyone, so that when the train crashed at the end and we learn who lives and dies, I found myself flipping back through the book several times to remind myself who was who.

I still think this is a compelling idea, but that Ryman attempted this on too large a scale. I'm thinking this could work brilliantly on a smaller scale, perhaps a double-decker bus (though that might not be large enough to allow some of the complexity of 253) or a tube train with four cars instead of seven.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2008 01:19 am (UTC)
Nothing in classical music is that constrained. It sounds like one of those clever ideas for a tour de force that is unlikely to come off really successfully.
Feb. 25th, 2008 01:43 am (UTC)
He does allow himself the occasional footnote that serves as a coda of sorts.

Nothing? Well, if we limit ourselves to the classical era, you're probably right. But if we expand to a broader definition of classical, then there are examples of such constrained frameworks. (I'm thinking of the serialists, of course.) I know, I was using the narrower definition. But the point was that the framework, rather than being limiting, can allow quite a degree of freedom and expressivity within its confines. The constraints, rather than being constraining, simply force the author/composer to seek different ways of channelling his expressive intent. It has the potential to be fascinating in writing, but Ryman's effort fell a bit short. Not too far short, though.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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