(Or, the Dickensian element.)

I haven’t finished reading these two pieces about rich people in contemporary social novels (both via Andrew Sullivan) but the first one mentions “the Dickensian logic of coincidence that somehow still governs such books.” In the usual 4 a.m. way of things, this made me remember someone I may have seen two days ago, walking along the ragged edge of Rock Creek Park.

She was an older white woman with golden hair, a determined manner, and a sharply-pointed nose. For a second I thought she was the mother of my elementary-school best friend, and I almost said hello. But I stared, and she didn’t seem to recognize me, so I figured I must have been mistaken and moved on.

A couple months ago I moved back to my parents’ house, the house where I grew up, and yet this is the very first time I’ve had even the brief shadow of an encounter with a person from my past. The neighbors are all different now. People always tell me how unusual it is that I’m a DC native (it’s not that unusual) but the number of times I’ve had the basic native experience of the inescapability of one’s past is startlingly small. One of the many fine touches in the movie You Can Always Count on Me was this forced acceptance of the past and its people: The cop who told the main characters that their parents had been killed is still their local cop once they’ve grown up.

That movie takes place in a small town; here there are just too many people, and they go away too much. I don’t have to see the girls I teased or the girls I confided in. I don’t have to see what became of people who exist now, in my mind, basically as allegories of my own guilts and longings. Their images have become fixed in my mismemory.

How would a social novel look without the chiming coincidences? Characters’ interpretations of their lives could become much more pliable and irreconcilably divergent. Small generic cruelties or kindnesses to people you never see again–the old woman’s onion–might take over the coincidence function.  Place might become less important in the novel, replaced by online networks. (I don’t actually think place will become less important.) A truly great novelist could portray the choice to stay with someone, to return, in a situation in which almost all of us would cut ties and move forward. (Hey here’s a relevant song. I feel like I’ve been the narrator.) Such a novelist could show that we choose what we do to one another, but we don’t really choose what it means.

Agatha Christie wrote several novels which commented on the dislocations of life after World War II–the one I’m thinking of is Easy to Kill, I think, with Cherry in her subdivision, but there are several of them. Suddenly you had all these new houses and new people, who could be anyone! And the murder plot required that many of them would be Significant People from Out of the Past, which meant that there would necessarily be a theme of the inescapability of one’s family (especially long-lost twins, I suppose), one’s old misdeeds, one’s reputation. We seem to have recovered the means of making people drag their reputations around behind them all their lives; forcing us to adapt to and accept difficult people who knew our past selves is much harder.