Okay, so the generation that came of age in the early days of the 21st century may not be the most disadvantaged social group in human history, but the kids do suffer — in literary terms at least — from underrepresentation. Zoe Whittall’s latest book, the novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible, chronicles a year in the lives of three mid-twenties residents of Toronto’s trendy/squalid/gentrifying Parkdale neighbourhood.
Shining a light on a world of “indie-rock near-beards, old Descendants T-shirt(s), and faded designer jeans,” Whittall’s characters are plucked from the ranks of the overanxious, overprescribed, and perpetually wired.
Billy, who had a brief career as a teen pop star, is a slave to anxiety; she has vividly described panic attacks that have her convinced she’s suffering from any number of awful maladies. If it isn’t a stroke that’s making her feel like her “mouth is dissolving,” then it’s an aneurism, or meningitis, or flesh-eating disease. That she and Maria, her girlfriend since the end of high school, have recently broken up is of little help.
Josh is also going through the dissolution of a long-term relationship, with the added complication that he still lives with his ex-girlfriend. A Toronto paramedic, Josh finds escape in the job’s long, often dull, hours. His busy moments at work are anything but boring, and Josh does his best, though not always successfully, to tune out the emotion of the tragedies he’s witness to. Whittall’s portrayal of the world and work of ambulance crews is convincing and gripping.
Amy, Josh’s aforementioned ex, is a filmmaker from a well-to-do family. Of all the characters, major or minor, only Amy seems overly concerned with appearances and identity politics. The novel is populated by, as Josh puts it, “complicated people with many challenges,” who find in each other the kind of security of community where anything’s normal. Josh recalls the early days of their relationship, when he had to insist that Amy not, when introducing him to friends, “qualify this is my boyfriend with he’s trans.” That she stands out for worrying “that she was too conventional,” “like an ordinary straight girl,” is a point well-made.
Billy, Josh, and Amy also serve as the novel’s trio of rotating narrators. Whittall invests generously in each of them and crafts three distinct voices. Her clear and fluid style makes the thorny task of telling a story from multiple perspectives seem deceptively uncomplicated. The point-of-view switches work, push the pace, and create an excellent ensemble piece on the page.
Whittall’s writing is vibrant, funny, and smart. She uses the power of the pop culture reference responsibly; rather than inundate, she picks her spots with effective mentions from a delectably oddball arsenal that ranges from Waydowntown to Designing Women. And Billy, Josh, and Amy’s reflections are sharp, supplying insight into “the generation that had e-mail addresses like PonyGirl85@hotmail.com by Grade 4 and took cell phones on their first dates.”
Above all, Holding Still For As Long As Possible is a love story, a universal theme that belongs to no specific generation or other type of group. Zoe Whittall, however, does not escape categorization; this novel firmly pigeonholes her as a kick-ass writer.
Mark Paterson is the 2009 winner of Geist magazine’s Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. Author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers, Mark is currently writing a novel, With the Lights Out.