When I write, I mostly write fiction. One of the key things a writer of fiction must do is engage the reader in the whole trick of the world of the fiction by taking care to construct a fabric that holds together of itself for the duration of the story. When a reader is able to look at the story and point to a bit that is accidentally out of kilter with the rest of the thing, they say, ‘But given all this other stuff, that bit couldn’t happen.’ So the fiction probably hasn’t succeeded. One of the devices that often causes the reader to feel cheated is the coincidence. If you are telling an account of what truly happened in your life, you sometimes do have to point to a coincidence. They do happen in real life, and people marvel at them and are delighted and puzzled and even frightened by them. But in the ordinary course of creating fiction, it is generally difficult for the writer to rely on coincidence for the development of the story. Writers often stay away from coincidence, or else put it boldly front and centre, or conceal it so that the reader doesn’t really notice. In The Great Gatsby, for instance, the fact that Nick Carraway happens to rent a house opposite the home of his cousin Daisy, and next door to Daisy’s old beau Gatsby, is almost never discussed. It’s a coincidence that is glossed over in the text, but it is vital to the action, without it there would be no story. Dickens cheerfully employed coincidence in his plots, but even there, so much is going on, so much drama, so much comedy, that readers can miss the device.
I want to reflect on the appearance of coincidence in what passes for real life. To begin with I will describe the images on two postcards:
- Black and white photograph by Jacques Lartigue, of his brother Maurice, known in the family as ‘Zissou’. 1911.
- Hand-coloured black and white photograph of children and Queenie the Elephant at Melbourne Zoo. Photographer and date unknown.
Zissou is a slender young man with a toothbrush moustache and round sunglasses. He is wearing a tweedy-looking cloth hat with a high round crown and a brim that sits across the top of the sunglasses. White shirt, dark tie, neat suit jacket, perhaps a size too large. His watch is on his right wrist. I should say that only the top half of him is visible, since he is sitting in a big old inner tube and his legs are encased in strange rubber leggings, which are an extension of the tube. He is floating in water that ripples around him, catching the light, and his legs in the leggings are visible beneath the surface. His left hand drapes from his wrist, as his forearm rests on the edge of the inner tube. There is an air of mystery and menace. The image is also hilarious, and leads the mind of the viewer out past the farthest rippling of the water.
Queenie, complete with a scarlet and gold cloth topped by a howdah in which are seated two little girls and a mother and baby, occupies most of the left-hand side of the picture. Her Indian keeper is half her height, and he stands, wearing brown suit, white shirt, bow tie and a little cap, to her left, looking at the camera. The right section of the picture shows a group of boys behind a wooden barrier. Two boys are sitting on the barrier. The sky in the background has been tinted pale rosy pink and pale grey-green; there is one scraggly European tree behind the boys. Behind Queenie is a brown wooden structure that looks like the archway entrance to some kind of performance space. Queenie stands with her left foot slightly forward, and her trunk dangling so that it almost touches the ground. Her shadow is cast off to the left; her keeper seems to have no shadow, although the shadow of the barrier falls across green grass. The one visible tusk points down parallel to the trunk. Queenie’s eyes are downcast, and I think she looks sad. In fact when I gaze at the whole image, it seems to me, in spite of the joyful girls and boys, to be heavily imbued with deep sadness.
Perhaps this is the result of the sombre nostalgic colouring, and the sight of a beaut-iful endangered wild animal working as a servant for human entertainment. A freak. Even the keeper strikes me as forlorn and trapped. The social gap and racial difference between the girls in their white dresses, high up on the elephant’s back, and the Indian facilitator, is manifest. The segregation of the girls up high on the elephant and the boys who are sort of corralled behind the fence also suggests an interesting dynamic. The boys are a bit of a rabble. They are the only ones who have a degree of freedom. Docile Queenie carries the weight of all this. I have heard tell of circus or zoo elephants that rebelled and went berserk, and the possibility of that is certainly, to my eye, contained in Queenie. She could step forward out of the frame of the card and suddenly go mad. Information on the back of the card claims that the picture comes from circa 1942, but this can’t be the case because of the clothes of the children. The girls, wearing long white dresses and large straw hats, are late Edwardian. The boys, likewise, resemble schoolboys from the early 1900s, in their suits, white collars, hats and caps. Perhaps the date was meant to be 1924.
How could these two postcards possibly be connected? Well in a perfectly ordinary way, in that my dear friend Jack recently sent me Queenie, and Zissou was a card Jack found in his mailbox in 1995, put there by mistake when he was living in an apartment building with mailboxes in a wall on the ground floor. Incidentally, Jack never was able to find out the true addressee of the Zissou postcard. The coincidences connected with the two postcards happened in real life. Don’t get over-excited about this—they are not wildly amazing, but they are odd little coincidences. And are both connected with the aforementioned Jack.
A friend sent me, from the National Gallery in Canberra, a postcard showing a remarkable photograph by Jacques Lartigue. It was a picture of his aunt Bichonnade, who appeared to be in joyful flight as she descended a stone staircase. Jack and I looked at this card and marvelled at the image, never before having seen any of Lartigue’s work. Then we went to Jack’s apartment where he picked up his mail, only to discover the Zissou card in his mailbox. Suddenly a second Lartigue! The card was addressed to someone else whose name didn’t tally with any of the names on the mailboxes. It had been sent from France. This is not the coincidence I am really telling you about. It’s a sub-coincidence in the story. Those were the days before the internet, so we were unable to research Lartigue as we would research him today. It was late Saturday afternoon, and libraries were shut, bookshops useless for our purpose. But—the second-hand bookshop round the corner stays open until who knows when. That would be a start. A start! There in the window was a little display of books on photography. Among them were two books on Lartigue. So we bought them. It might sound trivial, written down like that, but at the time I found something magical, fatal, in the little sequence of events from Lartigue postcard one to Lartigue postcard two to the sudden window display of the books. The whole business was driven by the genius and strangeness of Lartigue’s pictures. And don’t forget the mysterious arrival of the postcard in the wrong mailbox.
Some 20 years after all that, Queenie turned up in my mailbox. I had been to a café with Donna, the publisher of Inkerman & Blunt, and we had been talking about the current conversation on ‘identity and story-appropriation and political correctness’. This was a debate stirred up by a public speech on ‘Fiction and Identity Politics’, given by Lionel Shriver, in which the speaker claimed that if she were to obey all the dictates implied by ‘identity etc.’ she would be able to write only the narrative of a 50-year-old white woman of privilege, since the ‘rules’ preclude the use of empathy and imagination. She said, ‘The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction.’ So Donna and I were sitting in this café next to a shelf of children’s picture books, and I started wondering how come it was okay for children’s writers to inhabit the lives of rabbits and so forth. And I picked up a book called Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow. It’s a comment on the idea of the elephant in the room, and it’s very sweet.
Donna and I wondered how long it would be before children’s writers would be criticised for doing this kind of thing, for appropriating the lives and thoughts of elephants and pigs. Of course what we were not really addressing was the fact that the people the Shriver speech had offended were not thinking particularly clearly to the end point of their argument, but were stalled on the profoundly important matter of race. So stalled and focused were they that they overlooked another important matter, which is censorship. So obvious really. As soon as one group says another group is forbidden to write on such and such a topic, forbidden to write in such and such a way, censorship enters the debate, and you are either for it or against it. I happen to believe that it would be really good if writers, fiction, nonfiction, children or adult, could write about anything that took their fancy. And there’s another point about fiction the anti-Shriver people missed. They called for writers to respect them, to respect their culture and their race by not writing about these things.
What they missed was the fact that fiction writers begin to construct fiction largely because they respect the subject matter in their sights. This next will sound trivial, but it really is an example of the crooked thinking that goes on, particularly in the matter of fiction writing. I once read out in public a piece from a novel I had written, and in this piece a character wore a marcasite brooch shaped like the silhouette of a scotty dog, with a red stone for an eye. A woman I knew who was in the audience spoke to me seriously afterwards saying in hurt tones that I had ‘stolen’ the brooch from her. No, she didn’t mean that I was in possession of a brooch that once belonged to her, she meant that the brooch in the story was somehow real, and originated in her jewel box, and she resented hearing about it in fiction. This is an example, clear I hope, of the mistake people can make in the case of the subject matter and details of fiction. It can be a shock to read about what you think is yourself in fiction, but it’s a mistake to translate your shock into censorship.
Now, back to the elephant in the picture book. Having had a good time with David Barrow’s story, I went home, and there in the mailbox was the Queenie card from Jack. Jack is the link in the two coincidences, making it possible for me to place the two small events, Zissou and Queenie, side by side, and make a thought or a pattern or a narrative. Jack sends me mail once in a blue moon. So it was a rare event, the arrival of the card. If it’s a narrative, I am sure I would have to work a bit harder to make it come true in fiction. But you believe me, don’t you?
Mind you, I don’t think it’s possible to extract what I would call meaning from these apparently coincidental occurrences in life. They are kind of cute. But fiction sometimes depends on them, so maybe it’s good to practise writing them up sometimes, just in case I want to work them into a story. That’s one way fiction and nonfiction differ, isn’t it—nonfiction just is; but fiction is an illusion, a bit of a trick. I do love fiction. All that imagination. Taking the events of the everyday and playing with them and constructing a credible frame, an engrossing narrative, and sometimes, perhaps, succeeding in working in a little bit of coincidence.