The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, February 06, 2003

The book which for me symbolised that strangest of years, 1998, was 253 by the British-based Canadian expat Geoff Ryman. This was a "print remix" of a moderately interactive novel which Ryman had posted on the internet in 1996, and consists fundamentally of a detailed 253-word analysis of each of the 253 passengers (you see the pattern already) taking a Bakerloo Line tube train between Embankment and Elephant and Castle. There are links between some of the passengers, which are easily locatable on the
internet version, but in the standard book format, unless you cheat by going to the index at the rear, you have to work out these links by yourself.

Ryman admits that nothing much happens in the seven-and-a-half minutes which the action of this book covers. This is ingenuous, as one very major and final act occurs, without which the book would be nothing but a Trivial Pursuit-type dalliance in planned serendipity. There are plenty of footnotes, mainly ironic commentary on the non-existent architectural beauty of inner SE London, garnished with some autobiographical reminiscences about Canada and Ryman's youth; some mock advertisements; and one footnote in particular which occupies several pages and concerns the return of a 200+-year-old William Blake to the Lambeth of 1995.

This is a deceptively spiritual book, and reading it from beginning to end in print is not only a different exercise from toing and froing between links on the net, but is how I suspect Ryman actually intended the book to be read. Its structure becomes more conventionally apparent, as we move, passenger by passenger, from car to car, as the histories and fears accumulate, and the climax towards which the story is working. It is generally bleak and unremitting (it is set in early January) in its pitiless descriptions of the forlorn souls who by coincidence or circumstance come to occupy this train on this particular morning - all struggling to stay alive in their different ways, nobody fulfilled, most of them coming to "the end of the line." Salvation can only be achieved in abstract ways (there are many and increasingly more pronounced references to "salvation through art").

We of course can guess what's going to happen from the first character described; the train driver, a refugee Turkish political prisoner who is knackered after a late night arguing the toss over Islamic fundamentalism with his two best friends (and check the heaviness of the symbolism there - it leads to death!) and consequently falls asleep at the wheel, having first hung his jacket on the Dead Man's Handle. References are made throughout to what's going to happen - in particular when Ryman (cameoing as himself) is escorted off Car 2 of the train at Lambeth North by a policeman, having engaged in unlicensed "Tube theatre," i.e. a dud-sounding comedic routine involving sitting on several passengers. An announcement comes over the Tannoy, and everyone suddenly falls silent in shock.

Another group of people have disembarked from Car 4 after a hungover passenger has vomited copiously. Yet another group literally dance off the last car - Car 7 - already in another, older and perhaps better societal world. They manage to escape to ground level before hearing of what's happened on the train.

Spiritualism, as I've said, becomes more and more pronounced the further down the train we travel - from Car 2's one-armed psychotic Milton Richards, believing that he is under instruction from Jesus to kill his pregnant stepdaughter, who happens to be in Car 1, to more explicit pronouncements relating to the afterlife in Car 6, and finally in the climactic Car 7, where an old lady who does not know she is the escaped Anne Frank spontaneously leads everyone else in the carriage in a dance to "Is That All There Is?" - that kaddish of a popular song, written by Leiber and Stoller for Peggy Lee. No one here is ready for the final disappointment.

Ryman is very canny to play down the impact of the section he labels "The End Of The Line." He says that the crash was only put in the book to make it more interesting for readers impatient for some action. But in fact the crash, death, haunts the entire book; is in fact very deliberate. It is the book's attempt to make itself art. The book would have been impossible without the crash - it would not have transcended the boundary between parlour games and literature. Those unlucky enough still to be on the train at Elephant and Castle cease to exist, bloodily and horribly (the literary understatement renders it all the more sinister). The only survivors are the hungover exec, a pigeon which accidentally flew onto the train, and "Anne Frank" - and the latter is clearly symbolic.

At the rear of the book Ryman proposes that readers submit entries for a sequel - Another One Along In A Minute - wherein the train behind the one which has crashed comes to a halt for five minutes - 300 passengers, 300 words. Not much appears to have happened with this, nor do I suspect anything needed to happen. The whole thing is hyperreal - for a start, Bakerloo line trains are not composed solely of elongated rows of single seats - it's as much a fiction as the proposal in Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday wherein the world would be destabilised were the Circle Line train from Sloane Square next to stop at Baker Street.

Is this a major work of fiction? I cannot answer that - only that it has carried especial relevance to me, on my daily journeys through London back to - and from - Oxford, many times involving changing tubes at the Elephant and Castle, in the year of 1998, in an odd but not inexplicable association with Ultrasound's "Best Wishes" - one of the great singles of the '90s, and one of the great prayers for the dead rendered in popular music, its cover showing an identikit suburban high street, slowly being flooded. It haunted me, but did it prophesy? Not in terms of what happened at Chancery Lane the other week, but in terms of my own narrow escape from death in October that same year. It was as if that entire year had been leading up to it. And what did I listen to when I came out the other end of the tunnel? Bill Fay, for one (see above). And what did I read? Commentary in the Guardian and London Review of Books about the simultaneous passing of Ted Hughes. Ron Brown caught short on Clapham Common, a location as unreal to me in my hospital bed, just a couple of miles away, as the projected vision of Kansas in Ryman's previous novel Was. Quite a lot of Borges.

And what did I learn?

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