The follow up to young Canadian novelist Zoe Whittall’s 2007 debut, Bottle Rocket Hearts, Whittall’s generous novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible (Anansi) delivers a wallop of rich characters and voices. Told from three perspectives, the novel introduces us to Josh, a trans guy and EMT; his girlfriend Amy, a trust fund baby turned filmmaker; and Billy, a former teen pop idol who now battles debilitating panic disorder (“Good Will!” she chants to herself in a fight to make it through the day, “Good! Will!”)
These three voices narrate the life of the young and queer in Toronto, juggling breakups, hangovers, gentrification and the onset of adulthood with charming realism. If you think that this setup could only produce whiny, jaded points of view, though, think again.
The book is grounded in Josh’s EMT work, weaving cardiac arrest and twelve hour shifts among the nuances of these characters’ relationships with each other, creating a foundation of trauma that expertly juxtaposes life against death. And Josh within himself is a case study of perfect post-coming out literature: while we know he is trans, we’re following him in his life as it is, not while he struggles with identity, or patiently explains hormones to new friends. Josh is just a guy, and with these parameters we get one of the best trans man portraits fiction has yet to see.
Whittall also paints confident portraits of each character’s fluid sexuality, without getting bogged down in labels and politics: Amy is still attached to her ex-boyfriend Jason, but crushes out on the girl she sees at Starbucks; Billy doesn’t bat an eye when she morphs from mourning her girlfriend of seven years to falling for a guy. Whittall is expertly setting the tone for a whole new generation of queer fiction.
What’s more, the characters she creates are spot on in their quirks, passions, fears and coffee addictions. When Amy’s friend Tina is described as the girl who, “If you brought a camera out to a party, half of the photos were likely to show Tina, shirtless, with a lime in her mouth and playing air guitar on the edge of the DJ booth,” she sounds like someone I must’ve crossed paths with in my own dyke bar heyday.
All of the characters shine with these specific sorts of often humorous details to their lives. And Whittall harnesses the modernity of today’s youth flawlessly. There’s the tension of realizing you’ve missed six alarming text messages from your ex because you were with someone else. Eccentric Billy passes time by Googling hate blogs about her former teen idol self. Technology merges with everyday communication here in a way that’s utterly believable.
The plot of the novel is propelled by the brink of Amy and Josh’s inevitable breakup, the slow, heavy kind of breakup that comes when a long term relationship–once the stuff of dreams and fairy tale romance–fizzles out. And while the characters are entertaining and compelling enough to warrant a story of just their daily lives, Whittall demonstrates her talent in the book’s crescendo, a flawlessly narrated collision of the characters’ lives. With the ending, a story that begins as interesting catapults into un-put-downable, and cements the characters of Josh and Amy and Billy in my heart. I’m still thinking about them. I can’t wait to see what queer magic Whittall pens next.
—— Holding Still For As Long As Possible
By Zoe Whittall House of Anansi Trade Paperback, 9780887849640, 312pp. September 2010