Book review: The Competition by Katherine Collette

Life rarely works out quite like we plan it, does it?

Oh, we have grand and vaulting plans when we’re young, a time when we expect that our adult decades will be all self-fulfillment, donuts and parades; then we actually grow up and find that making those heady plans come to fruition is much easier said than done.

While not all of us fall into that messy chasm between hopefully optimistic plans and grinding reality, a fair few do, and while we know we have landed in Disappointmentville, population US, getting out again can be an overweening challenge, one that eventually wears us down unless we are sitting in a deep, existentially repetitive rut, unsure how to clamber out again.

In The Competition by Katherine Collette, who also brought us the revelatorily honest delights of The Helpline, we are treated to a charming black comedy lite tale told over a week in which we meet a bunch of people who need their status quo-suffocated lives zhoushed, zinged and just plain redeemed, their deeply human and oft-times surprisingly funny stories told with a health does of truth, honesty, and pithy, edgy social observation.

All are members of a public speaking organisation known as SpeechMakers, which is outwardly dedicated to helping people transform their lives but which has tipped a little too much towards the rapaciously capitalist side of things of late; even so, these four people are all seeking to find something better, more fulfilling, more alive, though none of them are precisely sure what that looks like.

“It was weird. There’d been a moment of utter certainty, and now the opposite. What an oddly specific hallucination. But I [Frances] was always doing that, thinking of the worst possible thing that could happen, or person that could appear, half-willing, half-dreading they actually would. The cataclysmic events I thought up weren’t real, they were in my head.

I thought they were.” (P. 7)

While it is heartwarmingly charming and darkly, vibrantly funny much of the time, told with a playfully mischievous tone that suggests Collette isn’t quite buying, and nor are her characters, what SpeechMakers are selling, The Competition is also refreshingly honest about what it is to be human, failed hopes and dreams and all.

Granted, we’d all like to be reassured that life will get better, and with little to no effort or intervention from us, but the fact of the matter is that it requires hard work, which starts with realising that there are problems that need to be fixed.

Lest you think this all sounds a little 12 Steps-ish, Collette invests her characters with less of a tendency to immediate epiphanic moments, though they do slowly creep up on them as this insightfully-written novel progresses, and with more of a slow drip realisation that things are bad and need to get better.

As we meet them, they are trapped in some of the usual ways that people deal with existential shortfalls – they are either enervatingly self-aware or they are deep into some kind of fetching delusion, the kind that neatly sidesteps the bad parts of our lives in favour of a shiny, pretty future that exists more in intention than reality.

But as The Competition tells its wholly engaging story with wit, honesty and head-tilting mischievousness, each of the characters come to appreciate that their tried-and-true coping mechanisms, some more battered and time-worn than others, don’t have a long lifespan and need top be replaced, though they’re not sure that the annual Speechmakers conference and speech-making competition is the place to do it (though for one of them, it is indeed a do-or-die effort).

Katherine Collette (image courtesy Wheeler Centre)

Happily for those of us reading along, it turns it is precisely the place they need to have a slow-burn, reasonably happy-ever-after (no life is ever endless euphoria, let’s be fair) Road to Damascus moment.

So it is that Frances, a supermarket worker and regretful accidental ex-bully in her early twenties for whom the conference is the be-all and end-all of her “Fix Life Now” strategy, finds herself facing up, quite literally as it turns out, to a painful, misjudged past (and it’s long-shot resolution) while her possibly ex-mentor, the overly officious Keith who loves rules and well-written regulations, discovers what maybe trying to save his marriage is not where he should be placing his considerably focused energy, have their own “what do I do next?” moments which don’t happen quite like they expect.

Meanwhile mother and son, Judy and Neil – she is a speech-making coach, he is a reluctant speech giver trying to atone for a past piece of misjudgment that had familial as well as professional ramifications – are struggling to work out what their moribund lives should look like, and whether it’s possible to move from an incident which left stuck emotionally and unable to pry themselves loose.

The delight of The Competition is that all of these gloriously flawed people, who could be any one of us, actually do have options, though it takes them a while to realise that, and they will look nothing like the ones they might’ve picked out, if they were thinking of them at all, and they are going to come to realisation in the most unlikely of circumstances.

“Keith couldn’t wait to tell someone what Roger had said. The deep satisfaction of knowing something other people didn’t was maximised if you were able to tell one other person. But who could he tell? Someone who was in the SpeechMakers world, who’d appreciate knowing—that excluded Frances—and understood the implications of what was being proposed—there went almost everyone else. It had to be someone as obsessed as he was.” (p. 174)

Novels as finely-wrought, sensitively-told and hilarity-infused as The Competition don’t come along all that often, especially not ones that managed to deftly dance between the serious and the silly, the sober and the melodramatic all while telling a story that cuts to the soul.

Every single one of the broken people in The Competition is caught in a hope-sapping bind until they aren’t, and it’s how Collette gets them from A to Z in ways that are funny, poignant and vengefully moving that really makes this brilliant story comes wonderfully alive.

You will come to love all of these characters, laugh with them, regret and grieve with them, and then slowly come back to life with them as they discover that stuffing things up, and suffering the consequences is not always the end of the story.

In fact, it can be just the beginning if you’re open to a nudge here and gentle shove there, and reasonably health amount of motivated, if not, at the start, then eventually, self-awareness.

The Competition is a highly readable, always grounded take on how underachieving people can find that elusive second chance, that it often look nothing like you imagined nor that it takes place when or where you expect, and how as they do, they realise that perhaps life, rather happily, isn’t quite done with them yet.

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