The old adage that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover doesn’t hold true for 420 Characters. As a formal experiment, its packaging helps define how it should be perceived. Lou Beach wrote more than a hundred 420-character stories using Facebook’s status-message constraints, and collected them for publication. This could easily be viewed as a collection of jokes, but the slim, classy red binding says otherwise, as does its elegant layout. There’s nothing wrong with books of formally limited jokes, but 420 Characters aims to be more.
420 Characters derives strength from its ability to evoke other stories and archetypes. In a single quick scene, its best stories imply a past and a future: “He walked everywhere until he was given a bicycle as a graduation gift, pedaled out of town on Saturday, told his mother he was going bowling,” concludes a story about an odd, bullied kid. That ending line offers enough details that readers can fill in the gaps.
The Facebook-imposed limit of 420 characters ends up being ideal for these vignettes. The stories are just long enough to form the vision of a scene from a movie, of the moment when it’s clear a tale is worth being told. If it fit Twitter’s 140-character limit, there wouldn’t be room for embellishment, and if it were longer, it would demand more satisfaction. It’s an elevator pitch, somewhere between a TV Guide blurb and a short story. As it is, the length of each story helps 420 Characters demonstrate repeatedly just how much most storytelling relies on archetypes and consistent motifs.
That’s a neat trick, but more than 150 different stories using it clarifies that it isn’t much more than a trick. The same manipulations 420 Characters uses to point at bigger issues in narrative also prevent it from being satisfying. That might not be an expectation for a formal experiment like this one, but the relative success of the comedic pages makes it easy to think that 420 Characters would have been better if it had been geared toward jokes. But as inescapable as its central gimmick is, there’s still some surprising beauty to be found.