jo's Reviews > Holding Still for as Long as Possible

Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall
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Aug 15, 11

bookshelves: queer, 9-11, psychic-pain, the-body, canadian, 4class
Read from August 11 to 14, 2011


(ETA par. at end)

this is a self-consciously 20-something book in which life is lived mostly at night -- people work during the day but their workdays seem unimportant -- in a drifty sort of way, fueled by extravagant quantities of alcohol, constant personal interaction (conducted in person or through text messages) and very little sleep. the 20-somethingness is conveyed, i take, by the choppiness of the narrative, the characters' restless sexual lives, their promiscuity, their great reliance on cell phones and most notably (as far as i am concerned) the bloody lack of sleep. when i was in my 20s i didn't do any of the things these people do except not sleep. if we had had cell phones then i would probably have died of sleeplessness and starvation.

all the characters are queer and while the book is obviously centered around this the characters hardly ever discuss it. when a girl starts dating a guy and a friend asks her if she's gone straight, the girl balks. you don't go straight or queer: you go where your heart and your lust take you.

what gives this novel its particular high-anxiety, strung-out atmosphere is, ostensibly, the fact that one of the protagonist, a transsexual called josh, works as a paramedic. the whole book feels lived out in a state of emergency, partly because it is (josh's work-life is discussed a lot) and partly because these old-young people's lives are a permanent state of emergency. billy, a 25-year-old ex-music-star (yes, in the second millennium people are exes at 25), is awfully agoraphobic, obsessive, and anxious. her whole existence is an extended attempt at keeping her devouring anxiety under control and under wraps.

these are not kids. these are people with a lot of life under their belts. they have seen death, illness, misery, their own fall from grace, and the sprouting and withering of lifelong relationships. they do not turn to their parents. they turn to each other, offering each other whatever faulty, cracked, weak solace they can.

since the book is set in toronto there is a pleasant sense of a lived-in city, of which one becomes aware every time bicycles are mentioned (a lot). the city, if nothing else, contains and sustains these aged kids, holds them steady, gives them a community.

i suspect this novel is successful in what it seeks to achieve, but i felt anxious the whole time i read it. it's hard to imagine a future for these queer kids and they themselves seem not to think in terms of a future. they are very much rooted in the present: the couches on which they are crashing, the jobs to which they need to show up, their love obsessions. they are also tortured by worry, jealousy, indecision. there is little redemption, no real trajectory. i wish at least one of them had felt some hope, a sense of direction; i wish there had been one genuine moment of simple, complete contentment, some happiness. but nope, it's sorrow and the burden of life from beginning to end, and while i'm sure there are young people who feel like this, i hope they are not too many.

the reason why the book ultimately didn't work for me, even though i gobbled it up and felt drawn to it, is that zoe whittall never quite tells us what is wrong. she intentionally stays out of the psychology of these characters, their histories, their inner conflicts. some lines here and there seem to suggest that psychological tensions are not something whittall believes in a whole lot: maybe it's all bio-chemistry, maybe it's simply the terrible anxiety of the times. but if you put a bunch of queer people in the narrow space of a novel, i want to see this queerness play a role in the happiness/unhappiness of the characters. we are not and i think we will never be in a "post" enough queer time that being queer plays no role in the tensions and stresses of young people.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Emilie (new)

Emilie thanks for reviewing this one, jo. it sounds disappointing. i can relate too much to the sleeplessness and the devouring anxiety and despair, and the idea that it's all biochemical or the anxiety of the times would alienate me.


message 2: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo don't give up on this book yet, emilie. the biochemical slant is contained only in a few sentences here and there and i may be reading too much into them. the anxiety of the times -- whittall mentions SARS and 9/11, but to me it seems more like these people are just stressed out. i've got to say, though, that the process of reading the book made me anxious at times, so if that is a concern, be warned.


message 3: by Emilie (new)

Emilie yeah, when i read-i felt anxious the whole time i read it, i figured this is likely not for me... i don't need help feeling anxious! *smiles*
sometimes, it feels worth it, when a book offers solace too, but it can't be all a mirror of anxiety state for it to work for me.


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