Sometimes it’s the books with small ambitions and seemingly dull subject matter that really wow you. Watching Traffic, a debut novel by queer Torontonian author Jane Ozkowski, is one of those books. In fact, Watching Traffic is kind of a perfect book; I don’t mean that it’s a book for everyone, but it is a book that does what it sets out to do in a seemingly effortless, quietly powerful, nearly flawless way.
The main character Emily lives in small town Ontario, the kind of place where literally people just drive through coming from Toronto on their way to cottage country. The town has been split in half by a big highway and one of Emily and her friends’ favourite pastimes is to walk over the overpass to watch the cars, and sometimes spit on them (there isn’t much else to do). Emily is haunted by her mother’s suicide when she was three. Everyone in the town has a hard time seeing her as anything else than “poor Emily,” the girl whose mom abandoned her in the most horrible way possible.
The novel is set at the end of the summer after Emily’s last year of high school. Do you remember that time? That feeling of promise, that expectation that everything is supposed to be new and different now. That sadness that the ways things have been for a long time are changing. That disorientation of officially arriving at ‘adulthood,’ which you’ve been waiting for forever, but that now it’s here you have no idea what to do with. Emily works at a local catering company that makes stuff like little sandwiches cut into triangles for weddings and funerals, and now that high school is over, she is wondering if she’s going to be working there for the rest of her life. Her two best friends have plans: Lincoln has booked a plane ticket to Australia, all ready to go backpacking, and Melissa is getting ready to leave for university in Halifax. Emily … has no idea what she is going to do.
Maybe this description doesn’t sound very interesting. I mean, that description doesn’t include any real plot, at least not like fans of mystery novels and action movies define plot. But Watching Traffic isn’t that kind of story; it’s quiet, it’s contemplative, it’s complex. The feeling and the atmosphere are more important than anything that happens. Even the parts of the book that could have fallen into those regular tropes of teenage coming-of-age plot—a new guy Tyler from the city moving to town and showing interest in Emily, her best friend Melissa’s coming out—resist the drama and simplicity those narratives usually embody. Meeting Tyler doesn’t solve any of Emily’s problems; he doesn’t even make any of them go away. Emily doesn’t magically become a different person. It’s so refreshing to see a teenage boy-girl romance not treated as the be-all end-all, especially for the female character.
Emily finally realizing Melissa is a lesbian, and has in fact been trying to tell Emily that she’s gay (and that she likes Emily) for while, is almost anti-climatic. When Emily arrives on Melissa’s doorstep, she blurts out “You’re gay, aren’t you?” Melissa drily replies, “Congratulations … You’re the last person on earth to know.” This feels true even outside the fiction of the story, as any queer reader has likely seen Melissa’s impending dykedom from a kilometre away. The quiet walk the two friends take together after the revelation, neither of them having the right words to express what they are feeling or thinking, feels eerily real.
There are a lot of things like that Ozkowski captures perfectly in this short, understated novel. Another is that uncanny sense of invincibility so rampant in teenagers. In one scene at a party, Emily narrates:
Even though it’s dangerous to swim drunk in the dark like this, nothing bad can happen tonight. The whole world is breaking open just for us, and we are jumping into it again and again. Tyler and Lincoln are at the diving board trying to do back flips into the water. They keep landing on their stomachs with loud smacks that echo above the trees, but they’re laughing and laughing because no one can feel pain anymore, and all of us will live forever.
The novel also nails that feeling the suffocation of living in a small town as a young person trying to find who you are when everyone around you is sure they already know exactly what kind of person you are. How can Emily explore who she might be and who she might become, when so many people only see her as “suicide baby?” As she tells Tyler when they’re talking about their relationship: “That story ruins everything… Even now, it’s ruining this. It’s ruining my whole life.”
Certainly part of the way Ozkowski captures life and its everyday revelations in such an evocative way is that her writing is gorgeous, full of expressive, eloquent similes and images, like:
“I keep looking at Lincoln and thinking, Remember this moment and remember how he looks, but it feels like I’m grabbing fistfuls of water out of a lake.”
“I stumble into the living room where most of the stuff my grandma has collected has piled on top of itself like everything that’s ever happened to her is still happening to her.”
“I feel a headache starting at the front of my scalp like tinfoil unraveling through my brain.”
Another thing I loved about this book was that Emily is a genuinely weird character. And I don’t mean weird as in a mainstream adorkable way, like when they put glasses on conventionally hot white girls in movies and this somehow is supposed to transform them into nerds. Emily is really weird. In one scene at someone else’s house she takes some potpourri from a bowl in the living room and eats it, just because she’s curious if it tastes good (it does not). When her grandmother—who’s a hoarder and possibly even weirder than Emily—gives her a box of her old teeth that all have gold fillings in them, Emily finds it strange, but not so strange that she doesn’t take them to a pawn shop to see if she can get money for the gold.
Jane Ozkowski’s bio at the back of Watching Traffic says she is working on “an adult novel set in Toronto during the apocalypse.” I can’t wait for that book, and everything else that she writes, after reading this stunning debut.