A couple of years ago I was having coffee with my friend E. and talking about our respective family histories. I had known her since we had moved into the neighborhood a few years before and knew she was from California, but I didn't know her family ranched in southern California back in pioneer times. So did mine, I told her. Her family was on land that became Camp Pendleton, she said. So was mine!
When I later researched it on the internet, I discovered that when my great-great-grandfather arrived in California in 1884 and began ranching on his homestead, he was sued by my friend's great-grandfather over ownership of the land. My guy won. Later, things turned bad (grasshoppers, horse thieves) and he went into sharecropping for E.'s guy, then got into hotel-keeping. After he died, his wife sold the hotel to a man who abruptly died, too, and then the hotel became a hangout for hoboes. (That's the part I had always known about.) In the 1880 census, E.'s g-grandfather's occupation is "Capitalist."
This would be bizarre coincidence enough -- I only know E. because of the proximity of our houses, 3000 miles from the disputed ranch; it's not as if we found each other in a California pioneers club, or because of a love of horses or hotels -- but about a year ago my friend became a realtor and just the other day she helped us make an offer on a house. If I believed in that sort of thing, I'd say we were working out some kind of karma. And who knows, maybe I do believe it. Mostly I believe that world is big and complex enough so that coincidences are a natural by-product. Mostly.
Anyway, at first I thought that this would make a good story, but then I realized why it wouldn't. Coincidence is fascinating in real life because it hints at a design created for mysterious purposes by an unseen designer. In a book, the designer is not so mysterious -- it's the writer -- and the purpose is usually obvious, too: it's to finish the dang plot.
When coincidence does work in fiction, it's when the characters acknowledge the coincidence and try to figure what's really going on -- then it becomes psychologically interesting and exciting. That's what Paul Auster does in his best work. Other times Auster's characters numbly accept the coincidence and we're supposed to be fascinated. I think not.
I just started reading Richard Ford's new novel about the pre-9/11 period, The Lay of the Land. I liked The Sportswriter and loved Independence Day, and this book continues with the same character, Frank Bascombe, who is a.... real estate agent!