Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fiction and Coincidence

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!


Trevor said...

I like the idea that characters should acknowledge coincidence when they become aware of it to help sell it to the reader.

The other thing that sells coincidence to the reader is voice. Consider the car accident in Gatsby--Daisy striking Tom's mistress on the way home from revealing that she and Jay are in love. That's ridiculous. And yet, we never doubt Nick who presents all this in a way that makes it seem inevitable, though surprising.

Anonymous said...

I am very attracted to coincidence and think maybe a book can support one big one, esp. if it drives characters' actions later. The book I'm writing now if packed with coincidences, but they turn out not to be.

It's interesting, though, that serendipity can be a blind spot in psychological-realist itself can support more fitting peculiarity than art, somehow.