Reading Zoe Whittall’s Toronto-set novel Holding Still For As Long As Possible is kind of like reading a wittier, more exciting version of my urban early-to-mid-twenties queer life in the 2000s. It was fun and nostalgic for me to jump back into this world, but it is uncanny to read a book featuring characters that are so much like you and the communities you’ve known. I mean, in a good and a bad way: these are white, bike-riding, middle-class background, artsy, educated, FAAB queers. Unfortunately, both people of colour and trans women are pretty absent from the world of the book, although this is something that was mostly true in my experiences in similar communities in Halifax, Victoria, and London in that stage of my life.
What I’m saying is that what Whittall is doing in this book is limited, but she’s doing it really, really well. Like, I can’t imagine anyone ever doing a better job. I imagine for a lot of queer girls and trans guys of my generation (who fit the above description, obviously) this book may have been the first one they read where they really felt like it was (queer) literature about and for them, which is pretty fucking cool. It’s also hilarious, in a dark, clever, sometimes cynical, real-life kind of way.
So yeah, this novel is about two cis queer women and a straight trans guy. It’s a love triangle, or more precisely square. The novel takes turns telling the story from each of their perspectives, and I know why Whittall chose to exclude one person’s perspective—plot twist reasons, although if you’re smarter than I am at figuring that stuff out, you’ll probably know what the twist is after not too long (I remained in the dark until pretty close to end but I’m notoriously terrible at that kind of thing). But I do wish we could have heard a bit more from Maria, who is the recent ex of Billy (a nickname of Hilary).
Anyway, Billy is an ex-teen girl singer-songwriter who used to be famous in the hey-days of Lilith Fair—a has-been at the ripe old age of 25. She doesn’t have a lot of life direction. She’s a part-time university arts student, she’s got a café job she kind of sucks at, and she’s a hard drinking, cynical woman. Her thoughts on gentrification, for example:
Me, well, I secretly hoped they really would build the rumoured Loblaws or Shoppers Drug Mart. Then I wouldn’t have to stand between peed-pants guy and boob-touch guy at the 1-8 items aisle at Price Chopper. I was thankful for the occasional latte, sick of the syrupy swill from the doughnut shop next to the train tracks. I knew this made me a bad person, but whatever. You pick your battles.
An answer to the question “What’s the good news?”:
‘I don’t feel like I’m being strangled today’ … in an uncharacteristic moment of complete honesty.
Billy’s also trying to deal with debilitating anxiety. One reason I put off reading Holding Still actually was that I was worried that the descriptions of anxiety—which I’d heard were really spot-on—would make my own anxiety worse. They didn’t, gladly, but I was a bit perturbed by the abrupt end to Billy’s anxiety, which is totally unrealistic and not really how it works from mine and, uh, tons of other people’s experiences. However, Whittall really does brilliantly and authentically depict what anxiety feels like. For example:
During panic attacks, I searched out solidity in objects like support beams, sidewalk pavement, braced shelving units. I held on, keeping fingers flat, in case they ran off like baby spiders in all directions.
Josh is the sweetest of the three characters, although he also has his flaws, obviously. He’s the most grown-up. He’s got a ‘real’ job as a paramedic and Whittall uses him to delve into the strange and (to me) terrifying world of ambulances and hospitals and medical emergencies. And Whittall does a great job, really, as a cis writer portraying a trans character. Being trans is there when it’s relevant and it’s not when it’s not. I guess what feels weird about Josh is that he’s so normal and relatively stable and calm, which is so ground-breaking for a portrayal of a trans character but it also makes him not the most interesting fictional person. Some tough family stuff from Josh’s past is really the only remarkable thing about him.
I liked Amy, Josh’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, least out of all the characters, especially at first, but I also found her the most amusing. I don’t think I’d want to be her friend in real life, but I really did enjoy reading about her. I have a feeling that if she were real I’d dislike her / be jealous of her because she’s one of those popular girls who crossed over to the indie/queer scene. (And Whittall actually really cleverly investigates how Billy and Amy idolize each other and are jealous in that awful way girls learn to beat themselves up in). What’s Amy like? Amy’s self-righteous but hypocritical sometimes about stupid stuff like eating healthy, she’s not super aware of her own privileges (especially her upper-middle-class background), she’s a hipster who wants to look broke and bohemian for lots of money, and she’s a filmmaker. Also, she’s hilarious. After a night of drinking:
This morning I woke up in a slug’s casing of my own regret
And after getting in contact with her ex-boyfriend after she and Josh break up:
I could feel Desperation’s presence in the room, hanging around me like a stifling, wet wool sweater. I was not going to let that bitch get the better of me.
She does have some emotional depth, which you don’t see until quite late in the novel, which is maybe the way Whittall wanted it. This is her wondering about Josh breaking up with her:
I’m not honest. I have no depth of character. I’m not brave enough to break myself down and ask important questions. I’m just Amy, pretty Amy, with the easy life and lots of options. Obviously I knew that Josh’s feelings for Billy had nothing to do with me. But I couldn’t help turning everything inward. … I looked like a boy compared to her—no ass, string-bean arms.
Holding Still For As Long As Possible is a character driven novel, which is, duh, why I’ve spent so much time talking about the characters. If you want to know more about them and what happens, which I hope you do, pick it up. On top of everything else that’s awesome about this book, both Amy and Billy are bisexual and it was really gratifying for me to see non-monosexual women who were part of a queer scene and navigating it. Billy thinking to herself “Quick, say something that indicates you also date boys,” after talking about her ex Maria to her current interest Josh, is exactly the kind of everyday being bi stuff that I don’t see enough of in queer fiction!
By the way, Whittall’s next novel titled The Best Kind of People is due out Spring 2016. Not soon enough, in my opinion.