Guests of Chance

by Colleen Curran
310 pages,
ISBN: 0864924380

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The Charms of the Sink or Swim Approach
by Ann Diamond

Wanted: one very strict fiction editor. With a little 'training and discipline', Montreal playwright Colleen Curran could really be a novelist, possibly an excellent one. And if she ever hooked up with Robert McKee, popular guru of dramatic writing, there would be no stopping her. Armed with a few of his recipes for bringing order out of chaos, she could be a Canadian Maeve Binchy or Barbara Pym.
Chances are Curran's third novel, Guests of Chance, will slip between the cracks, since whatever else it may be¨part travelogue, part collection of skits, part unconventional romantic comedy¨it is not quite novelistic or Canadian enough to ride the mainstream. Set in Montreal, Hollywood, and the north of England, Guests of Chance introduces us to Lenore and Heidi, offspring of the Fighting Flynns, a far-flung, close-knit family of Irish Montrealers.
Perhaps it's because of Curran's grapeshot approach that I never figured out whether the two were cousins, half-sisters, in-laws, or just two actors in a comedy that frequently unravels, but never stops rolling. Like some ball of string that has picked up speed on a down-sloped path, Curran's world keeps on turning, even when crammed with dialogue that can appear to be heading nowhere story-wise.
Perhaps Guests of Chance actually succeeds on its own terms, since Curran probably never intended to write a conventional novel. This is too bad, in a way. I think the novel within is worth saving, even if a few renovations to the whole are in order. Curran is a true master of comic dialogue, and there are flashes of genius in this book. It's not a totally satisfying read¨more like bouncing over a dirt road in a car that missed its last tune up¨which is what the heroines do, in fact, in one of my favourite chapters. When we first pick up their trail, Heidi and Lenore are travelling to England from Montreal on a whirlwind tour, so that Heidi can hook up with a certain Miles. Miles turns out to be a mama's boy, a charming sociopath who has climbed Everest twice without reaching the summit. He has converted his mother's house into a replica of Base Camp, where he lives only to plan his next expedition to the top of the world.
Heidi's hopeless quest for Miles is what McKee would pinpoint as the all-important "inciting incident". It features the book's best drawn characters, and the most engaging and funny narrative. When Miles ignores the love-struck Heidi and hits on her travelling companion, the shocked Lenore visits a Catholic church to confess. The talkative priest in the booth assures her that it "isn't a real confession, more of a chat." It turns out that he knows all about Miles' philandering. The follow-up scene in a pub, where a gaggle of women discuss their own sordid histories with Miles, as well as a litany of broken marriages and ruined lives, is hilarious.
In England, Lenore finds plenty of characters as mercurial and eccentric as her own imagination. Barely off the plane, she's trading insults and history lessons with Beefeaters and guides at the British Museum, resolving the Irish question, putting pretentious people in their places, and generally behaving as if she had been British all her life. Asked at the last minute to stand in for an ailing local actress in an amateur play, she learns all the songs in 24 hours, and ends up bringing down the house.
Lenore's readiness to run off in all directions at once adds to the manic pace that is essential to Curran's brand of comedy. An accomplished improviser, she picks up whatever situation, character, or prop comes along and runs with it, occasionally dropping it too soon in her haste to move on, to keep up, to be entertaining. To her credit, she sometimes circles back to pick up scenes and characters discarded in the headlong stampede from one scene to the next. Once she settles into a place, a cast of characters, a story line, Curran sparkles. There's a brilliance and natural wit in her dialogue that is never smarmy, dry or pretentious, and it exhibits her delicious sense of irony. She has a knack for those telling, involuntary statements that lay character bare.
The introverted, intellectual Heidi's quest for true love contrasts starkly with Lenore's rollercoaster lifestyle. As if she's on a constant regimen of amphetamines, Lenore makes room in her overcrowded life for everything and everybody, from convicted murderess Madame Ducharme, to her ex-boyfriend Fergie and the rotting taxidermy collection he has stored in Lenore's basement.
If Lenore has a fatal flaw, it's that she has no life of her own. Or perhaps she has too much of a life. I couldn't help thinking, at times, that the irrepressible, versatile Curran would be better working with a team of writers; she could supply vibrant dialogue and absurd detail, and allow somebody else to cope with the nagging question: "What's this about?" Here's where a strict editorial hand would have been useful, even though Curran's capacity to cram a great deal in is often what makes her work so funny. The opening chapters read like skits strung together in flashbacks. For the first forty pages, while in the air over the Atlantic, Lenore copes with fear of flying as she relives an embarrassing Open Mic evening at the Yellow Door coffeehouse in Montreal, and an equally awkward Oscars night in Los Angeles (circa 1990), when she hung out with Cotton Brady, an actress who might be Whoopi Goldberg, cleverly disguised. I have been to Open Mic night at the Yellow Door, and I actually do remember that long-ago Oscars ceremony, but I still can't figure out what these scenes are doing in this novel. Curran seems to stumble into plot the way Lenore walks on stage in Bickton-on-Curds.
Her narrative technique is often a variation on "sink or swim", as she drags the reader into meetings with manic strangers. Taking our comprehension for granted, she peppers the dialogue with references to a vast cast of people we have never heard of, whose complicated histories seem utterly detached from the action here and now. This is "realistic" in the sense that, across the country at any given moment, all sorts of people are involved in obscure personal chitchat.
In the more conventional novel, dialogue is supposed to contribute to plot, which is designed with a purpose. Guests of Chance is overloaded with subplots and minor characters, such as Elspeth, the "World's Worst Mother", who abandons her children on some narcissistic whim, absconding to Greece with her lover, Elijah. In one of the most touching sequences, her son and daughter are quickly taken aboard Lenore's merry-go- round in Montreal, a world populated by an oddball collection of colourful locals, like her boyfriend, Benoit, an outgoing, under-employed cop, and Lenore's ex-neighbour, Madame Ducharme, a serial poisoner who continues to correspond with Lenore from her new digs at Joliette penitentiary.
The saving grace of these people is that they could never make it in Hollywood: they're just too lifelike and multi-dimensional. L.A., it so happens, is a lot more boring than cosy, provincial Montreal, where Lenore is actually in show business through her connection with a dinner theatre called Les Festins. This is an additional plot complication that doesn't quite catch fire, even if the restaurant threatens to. Spinsterish and aimless in the beginning, by the novel's conclusion Lenore has accumulated everything a woman needs for a full life: two mislaid children, a devoted fiancT, even a sailboat. Along the way, she discards Fergie and his collection of dead stuffed animals. It's a tale of redemption, I guess, since by the end everything falls into place for Lenore, who has until then been unable to decide if she is the protagonist in her own story, or merely an observer on the sidelines.
Not that there isn't plenty of subtle wisdom, dished out skillfully by a writer who never underestimates reader intelligence or slips into heavy moralizing. Like a tightrope walker stranded in midair, Lenore survives on faith and chutzpah. Because Colleen Curran is such a gifted and witty raconteur, both she and her heroine manage the crossing. Refreshing and unpretentious, Guests of Chance is the kind of book you pick up and read for enjoyment, relaxation, even a dash of enlightenment. It abounds in scattered gems that might have thrown off even brighter sparks in a less carnival-esque setting.

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