Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall
RATING: ★★1/2 (2.5/5)
I remember that very specific queer scene of the early 2000s: those queer girls who read Bitch magazine, became obsessed with knitting and all things vintage, listened to indie bands, converted to veganism– the mixed offshoots of ’90s hippie and punk revival. Admittedly, my memories are from an adolescent perspective, gazing up toward the women I dreamed of becoming. Unlike these characters, however, I grew up, I became what I’d like to label a ‘self-aware’ person. Unfortunately, HSFALAP (I cannot bring myself to write out the entire title) only manages to straddle the divide of self awareness and self-indulgence, much like an adolescent. At one point a central character, Amy, opines that the majority of her conversations with a female friend and coworker have devolved into ‘Sex and the City’ type anxieties over her relationship; to a lesser degree, this is how I felt about the book’s narrative. In her sincere, and perhaps only all-too-accurate attempt at depicting queer life in early 2000s urban Canada—a ‘slice of life’ piece—author Zoe Whittall strives for a tone of ironic criticism but ultimately only achieves a brand of nostalgic hypocrisy.
HSFALAP centers around the members of what will become a clichéd queer love triangle; each character is given a series of first-person chapters, with each ‘book’ or part begun with a third person vignette featuring incidental characters. The three central characters are relatively strong and have unique voices for the most part, at times wavering in distinction. Billy, a fallen/shooting star of teen folk/pop fame in North America, is possibly the most well-developed character, though her panic disorder & OCD, however accurately portrayed, sometimes overwhelm the importance of her other traits. Another side to the triangle, Amy, is uninvolving, almost to the point of being a trope: she comes from an upper-middle-class family and is the black-sheep artist of the conservative career-professionals, is conventionally beautiful, and her multiple shallow behaviors (materialism and oblivion to her own privilege among them) are proved scarcely redeemable by any of her behavior. Josh is frustratingly the most interesting but less defined of the central characters. It is affirming to see a trans* character whose trans* identity is not the sole focus of their storyline, and Josh has the potential to be a satisfyingly emotionally and intellectually complex character, but in the end he is left disappointingly undeveloped; Whittall again seems to waver in her stylistic choices, at first placing emphasis on Josh only to replace him with the anxiety-riddled Billy whose mental ‘disorders’, though accurately and compassionately described, are resolved in a sickeningly neat and lazy manner, suggesting that they only ever there to add tension to the plot before being discarded as a ‘quirk’. The resolution, though perhaps not medically impossible, does the strength of the character, and the hopes and sufferings of all those actually suffering with panic disorders and OCD a disservice.
Whittall begins HSFALAP with two epigraphs: one examining the human vacillation from feelings of insignificance to self-importance, especially within the context of crisis (taken from composer Allen Shawn’s excellent memoir, Wish I Could Be There: notes from a phobic life), and the other a quote from David Sedaris (as told on This American Life) concerning the societal reaction to the national trauma of 9/11 and the ensuing confusing emotions and emotional manipulations by the media.
These quotations promise a narrative that concentrates not only on the microcosm of daily social interactions and anxieties, but a broader, more existential, look at human experience within the context of early 2000s North America. Promotional material promises that HSFALAP will tell the story of “What [it’s] like to grow into adulthood with the war on terror as your defining political memory, with SARS and Hurricane Katrina as your backdrop” but in actuality these political and natural disasters do little to “define” the characters, figuring only as footnotes in the novel’s movement. Though Whittall makes brief stabs at reflections on family, economic struggle, and queer identity the story of HSFALAP generally skims atop the surface. The door to characters’ underlying pasts and traumas is never fully opened, nor are we really engaging with the socio-political present. In some novels this type of psychological and narrative withholding works, but in this case it only proves to hollow out possible complexity and hints at the author’s inability to define characters beyond their tropes, as exampled in the case of Josh, whose abusive father and rough family life serves little actual narrative function and comes to no climax. Instead, Whittall goes along the generic route, focusing on the tears and binge drinking and sex, the story becoming less and less engaging under the weight of the romantic drama. Youthful vices which could be observed from a more critical or analytical stance are dulled into the boring partying of twenty-somethings, written as if it is a given and not helped by incessant, unexplained pop-culture references which have no way to stand the test of time for future readers (for a contemporary author that successfully utilizes pop-culture references, wit, and diverse characters, I recommend Rainbow Rowell). All emphasis is placed on the present inner dialogue and motivation, very little on past events or the influences of the outside world at large— proving the characters to be, perhaps unfairly, represented as extremely self-involved. Compounding this shallowness and the empty promises of publisher’s promotions, Whittall barely brushes the surface with her descriptions of the changing demographics of the urban Toronto area. It clear that her stance on the area’s gentrification is a critical one, but still her cast of characters is overwhelmingly white and solidly middle class. All of the central characters are white, and none of the minor characters remain un-described. As many writers fail to realize, simply leaving characters’ ethnic or other minority ambiguous is not really a form of representation as, unfortunately, most reader (oftentimes even PoC) assume characters to be white if not explicitly identified otherwise. I believe the one time someone’s race was explicitly mentioned in HSFALAP was to qualify a nefarious stranger as white…as if it might be assumed that they were a PoC otherwise.
The epigraphs’ suggestions of a deeper theme fade into a narrative largely consumed with the complicated and dramatic swamp of romantic intrigues reminiscent of ‘The L Word’. If you are an author and decide to preface your work with an epigraph you better be damned sure that your work actually sticks to the suggested theme and isn’t shown up by those other author’s remarks. I suggest that if you are actually interested in the themes conveyed in this epigraph you’d be better off just reading Allen Shawn’s book or listening to that episode of This American Life.
For a novel touting so many promises, this reader was ultimately let down. Plowing through this novel—in this case, yes, plowing as in actual work not pleasure—was made compulsive by a hope that these promises might, somewhere in the next page or chapter, be fulfilled, compounded by the vivid anxiety of Billy. The structure, voicing, and thematic un/success of Whittall’s work could have been aided by a firm editor or, even better, some more time at the worktable. With the apparent lack of a critical eye, the story unfortunately comes off as an insular look at a very specific demographic within the queer community of 2000s urban Canada, told with an amateurish attempt at surrealist intellectualism. The pretensions of deep examination give way to pure illustration of jealousy, immaturity, self-indulgence, unhealthy emotional compartmentalization, and co-dependence which have no real consequences in the end, despite an attempt at a climax. Maybe a half-heartedly satisfying romance for your summer stitch ’n’ bitch group, but lacks the expressive prose and deft handling of characterization and theme that makes a great novel truly stick in your mind.