Reviewed by Ariel Buckley
Holding Still For As Long As Possible. House of Anansi Press, 2010.
It’s hard to write well about contemporary culture. Unlike works set in obscure historical contexts, novels depicting the present or recent past are subject to scrutiny on all sides; we were there, too. Readers know how people talked and what music they listened to. This holds true even for a book as spatially and temporally specific as Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still For As Long As Possible. It takes place in and around Toronto’s Annex, Queen West, and Parkdale neighbourhoods and spans September 2005 to September 2006. Through the overlapping stories of Josh, Billy, and Amy, Whittall deftly captures a cross-section of Toronto hipster culture and the LGBTQ community.
Toronto itself is a major presence in Whittall’s novel. Apartments are painstakingly mapped out against real street names, parks, bars, and restaurants. The city can sometimes be distracting—particularly to someone who grew up in southern Ontario—but there’s a certain location-spotting appeal that adds to the fun of reading Holding Still. Pop culture references and Toronto landmarks provide a nice counterpoint to the cryptographic codes and acronyms in sections on Josh’s job as an Emergency Medical Technician. (There is an unlisted glossary hidden at the back for the uninitiated.) Overall, the novel’s portrayal of 20-somethings in the early 21st century is impressively unaffected. Whittall boldly incorporates stilted, emotional text messages without sounding like Cecily von Ziegesar. People get really drunk and have lots of sex, and it works out fine, though they occasionally wake up “in a slug’s casing of [their] own regret… curs[ing] the sun with all its expectation” (44). Characters read The Globe and Mail and fail to show up for waitressing shifts. MuchMoreMusic makes an appearance.
It’s refreshing for a book about hipsters to be so unironic. In Whittall’s Toronto, irony is doing shots of Jägermeister and dancing to Top 40 music, not cynically denouncing modern existence. Characters are generally honest and affectionate. Working with the tools of melodrama—near-death experiences, overlapping love connections—Whittall nevertheless avoids melodramatic scenes, flattening potentially surreal conflicts into realistic human interactions. She mercifully avoids the willful misunderstandings that continually frustrate in fiction.
The novel alternates between the distinct first-person voices of the three main characters, beginning with Josh’s earnest narrative perspective and occasionally clumsy metaphors. Amy, a filmmaker who “always [thinks] in terms of opening credits” (50) and Josh’s girlfriend of several years, often appears to be (and is described as) the most conventional of their group. Billy, a former teen star suffering from debilitating panic attacks, might be Whittall’s most intriguing character. Her songwriter’s voice is sophisticated and incisive. Charting the complex relationships between these characters and their friends and lovers, Whittall touches on dark issues of anxiety, familial estrangement, drug abuse, and depression. It’s about young queer and transgender characters, but while the novel alludes to the politics and challenges of being queer or trans, characters generally take their sexuality for granted; this is not a coming-out novel. It is really about a more universal struggle to forge human connections in spite of feeling profoundly screwed up. As Billy’s aversion to medication despite her often paralytic panic suggests, this is a generation of Canadians for whom near-constant anxiety about the state of the world is relatively normal.
Josh’s job, with its insistence on mortality, provides a framing metaphor for the novel, itself framed by a series of “Lives.” Each of these glimpses into the background of an EMS call complements Josh’s continual visits to patients in varying states of emergency. These calls can be entertaining or poignant, ranging from the 22-year-old Jay-Jay running around with a bullet-hole in his forehead to the final moments of an elderly woman to the haunting body of a murdered child. Throughout the novel, the immanence and fear of death infuse events and relationships with meaning. Although preoccupied with death, Holding Still is life-affirming. Billy offers a beautifully straightforward antidote to the overwhelming stimuli of modern life: “I’d like to do nothing for as long as possible, just sit in those moments in between, with no expectations of the world or my place in it” (296). In the post-9/11, post-SARS, post-postmodern world, sometimes just not feeling afraid is enough. Epigraphs drawn from David Sedaris and from Allen Shawn’s Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life highlight Whittall’s preoccupation in this novel with moments of such vulnerability when—to borrow Shawn’s phrase—“the evidence of our own importance” suddenly falls away.
Holding Still For As Long As Possible is a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, casual-sexing book. At its heart, though, Whittall’s brilliantly simple novel is a good old-fashioned love story, charming and compelling. And it feels true.
At press time: Ariel Buckley is a PhD student in English at McGill University and Managing Editor of CuiZine: The Journal of Canadian Food Cultures. Her research focuses on food and rationing in British fiction of the twentieth century.
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