Of Coincidences

Modern readers tend to be very cagey about what they perceive to be too many coincidences in a work of fiction and yet life is full of flukes and happenstance. You know what I mean, out of the blue you find yourself thinking about a friend you haven’t seen for years and there is a text message waiting for you when you get up the next morning. It’s from Ontario, or Christchurch, NZ, and it’s her. Or memories of another friend float up from nowhere and you remember the good times you had years ago at university and you suddenly bump into him in the Oxford Street M&S.

Another example involves the keys in the illustration. I had occasion a couple of years ago to break my journey from Surrey to Lincoln at Chicheley Hall in Buckinghamshire. I booked at the last minute and there was only one room still available because there was a wedding going on. The rooms in that wing were named after famous scientists and the only one left was ‘Thomson’, after the physicist. And there’s my key tab to prove it.

Or consider when you and a friend say exactly the same unrehearsed thing at exactly the same time. This happened in Venice in February. Neither my friend, Helen, nor I, had ever been there before but on emerging into St Mark’s Square so astonished were we at the beauty and sublimity of it all that we uttered the identical swear word in unison.

And if you put that in a novel, no-one would believe you.

With me it’s about words. I come across a word I don’t know and I look it up. This is an imperative with me. I can’t do with glossing over it. Even if I think I know a word (as with ‘happenstance’ above, which is really US English but it fits the bill), I have to check it out for connotations and context. The thing is that the minute I make friends with a new word it crops up everywhere: in the book I’m reading. on a TV programme, in the news. That’s quite remarkable because I have a rather large vocabulary. It sounds like a boast, I know, but I’m not going to apologise. What is the point of having English as your first language when it has the most sophisticated lexicon on the planet and possibly the universe and you don’t use it? And, as an author now, and a teacher of English in a previous life, I consider it a bit of a duty too.

As a matter of fact, I have just done an online test, of some academic repute, and my estimated vocabulary (of known words, that is) is 41,900 words. Another site informs me that Shakespeare used 31,584 words in his works. You may well believe that I felt suitably snotty about the Thicko of Avon until I read further that he probably knew another 35,000 words – his reserve pool, if you like. I don’t know how they make these calculations but I believe them.

Now, here’s the thing. Would I employ all of my massive egghead vocabulary in my writing? I think it would be foolish. I suspect my earlier writing was not as lexically lean as more recent work. There has to be a balance between competence and performance, as linguists say. Mind you, sometimes a word is so beautiful, and so right, that I have to use it, even if it sends my reader to the dictionary. And no bad thing, says the pedagogue in me. But, on the whole, one writes to be read after all, not to show off.

(I bet I come across the word ‘happenstance’ tomorrow. It would, of course, be a very ordinary coincidence if I did.)

I try to avoid coincidences in my own writing though it might be a bit cowardly given their frequency in life – and in earlier literature, actually. The coincidences in Oedipus’ tragedy are monumental but they are a necessary part of the dramatic irony. On the other hand, we are likely to sigh these days at some of the the more clanking coincidences in Dickens or Hardy. They seem to tamper with our suspension of disbelief. So, for now, I am playing safe.

Of course, in a purposely stylised piece of work, you can play games with the conventions. In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert the protagonist first encounters his prey at 342 Lawn Street, Ramsdale, and the seduction takes place in Room 342 in The Enchanted Hunter’s Hotel. The number 52 also occurs frequently – the number of cards in a pack. But here, Nabokov, the prestidigitator (sorry!) is playing games with the reader.

My current WIP, Humphrey and Jack, involves a sort of dialogue between youth and age. It flickers between harmony and friction. It’s not been hard for me to get Humphrey’s tone of voice right but I have had to have recourse at times to the Urban Dictionary to tune into how Jack might express himself. It is rich, witty, inventive and often gross – and wickedly unreliable. I love it.

You can be sure though, that if I come across a particularly choice yoofspeak idiom that I have never come across in my life before, it will crop up in half a dozen Facebook posts later in the day. Or I will hear it shouted in the street.

The theory is that in reality I will have encountered it often enough before but that it has not consciously registered. Perception is all. But I’m suspicious of theories as I get older. There’s no magic in them.

Do you know the expression hapax legomena? – a word that occurs only once within a context, either in the written record of an entire language, in the works of an author, or in a single text. I’m not showing off – it was on University Challenge.

I thought, wouldn’t it be quite something to produce a whole story that was that original and to fill it full of coincidences?

And then I thought, no, probably not.

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