Sometimes I choose a novel specifically because it's set somewhere I'm unfamiliar with, or somewhere I only know a little. That kind of escape allows me to focus on the story, rather than every little detail of place, and I think that's probably why we see so many vague or generic towns and cities in literature; it isn't that the author is being lazy, it's just that they'd rather you not fixate on those details. Reading a novel that takes place somewhere I know well, on the other hand, is a very different experience. It can be kind of exhilarating to read about characters who live and work in a neighbourhood you know well, especially when they're about your age. Also, specificity of place can lead to specificity of story, which is to say, while the author may be making general observations about a generation or a demographic, by being specific about where things are happening the story is less likely to universalize. In Holding Still For As Long As Possible, Zoe Whittall manages that balance beautifully.
The novel is set in Toronto, mostly in the Trinity Bellwoods and Parkdale neighbourhoods. If you aren't familiar with these areas, that's fine, as much as I talk about setting, what's important is that this is somewhere that exists. The streets that Whittall refers to are real, as are many of the bars, restaurants, and hospitals, which roots the story much more firmly, making it seem almost possible to run into the characters. The story alternates between three perspectives, and the first-person voices are so distinct I can't imagine the kind of work Whittall needed to do to move between them. Josh is a transsexual paramedic (he transitioned years ago), his girlfriend Amy works in the film industry, and Billy (short for Hillary) is a former teen idol kind of star who know suffers from acute anxiety. The descriptions seem almost self-consciously interesting when they're written out like that, and in some ways that's the point. Each section is told entirely from inside one character's head, so it's like we're getting to know them at the same time as they're getting to know each themselves and each other.
In a lot of ways, this novel is about turning points. All the characters are 25 and have been in long-term relationships since they were teenagers. At the beginning of the novel, Billy and her longtime girlfriend break up, which is why she moves in with Josh and Amy's friend Roxy, which is how she meets Josh. Josh and Amy have been together since they were 18 or so, and they live together, but things are not what they used to be. In a weird way, Holding Still For As Long As Possible is like a coming-of-age novel for an older generation. Very few writers talk about your 20s as anything but a time to be young and party, and while there's youth and partying in the novel, the underlying theme is that life in your 20s is kind of hard. But, Whittall doesn't generalize, and although things are tough for each character, even those going through the same things (break-ups, job insecurities, etc.) don't experience them or deal with them the same way.
The story is framed by details related to Josh's job. Each section starts off with a paramedic call (not one that Josh is working, but it's a great little device to casually introduce us to his coworkers) and Josh's job is definitely the most fully described. Of the three, Josh is probably the main character, and we learn a lot about his backstory. He talks about his family a bit, and although he also discusses being trans, it's never in a way that's separate from himself. For example, in his childhood memories of playing with his sister, he is a little girl, and he talks about his former long hair. There's no pop-out 'how to build a penis' section or anything, and you never once question Josh as a man, and neither do his coworkers. As Josh and Amy's relationship falls apart, he becomes closer to Billy and they end up dating.
It's hard to pinpoint what this novel is specifically about because Whittall does such a good job at making it about everything. It's about what it's like when relationships end, but also the excitement and anxiety about new relationships. It's about how sexual preference and gender identity aren't rigid, and sometimes labels (like lesbian) can be restrictive and sometimes meaningless (Billy dated Maria for almost a decade, then she dated Josh – there is not need to over-analyze these decisions). And it's also about being in your mid-20s in a post-9/11 and Hurricane Katrina world (the novel is set in 2005) and how those events have shaped a generation of adults.
Holding Still For As Long As Possible is a pretty quick read, not because it's short or insubstantial, but because it's so absorbing you can't put it down. There's a sense, reading this book, that you hold real lives in your hands; each character feels so complete and true that you can't help but care about them, and feel a little bereft once you finish. It's a beautifully written portrait of the life of these characters is like, and although it's fiction, it's a perfect example of how reading something real and vivid can be just as fulfilling and engrossing as something escapist.
Holding Still For As Long As Possible
by Zoe Whittall
First published in 2009 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)