I read Zoe Whittall’s Holding Still For as Long as Possible over the weekend. It was pretty good. It’s set in Toronto and is about twenty-somethings. Dear god, you’re saying, why would you ever want to read about that?
The good: The writing, the actual stringing the words together part – nice words, prettily strung. One o the characters describes herself: “I might have made a great Victorian lady, dying in a tower somewhere, pinching my wrists until the wilting finally kills me”.
The mediocre: the whole thing is a big mess. The story is about a love triangle of anxiety-riddled, self -obsessed hipster types. The trouble is, the three characters are all too similar. This is what the book jacket says (and I know I can’t blame Whittall for some ridiculous book jacket but still):
What is it like to grow into adulthood with the “war on terror”, SARS, and Hurricane Katrina as your backdrop? In her robust, elegant new novel, Zoe Whittall presents a dazzling and mature portrait of a generation we’ve rarely seen in literature – the twentysomethings who grew up on anti-anxiety meds, text messaging each other truncated emotions, blurring their public and private lives…
And so on and so forth. While I’ll agree that this group isn’t written about often, or if they are written about, it isn’t honest and it all devolves into stereotypes, but still, I don’t feel that Whittall gets it right. This book feels kind of nineties to me, and I’m not trying to be nit-picky. She is at least more honest and sincere than most people are about this generation, but still, some of it feels like posturing. Like, oh the girl who has panic attacks, and the girl with rich parents who wants to be a filmmaker but doesn’t really get it because of her privileged upbringing, etc., etc. Panic attacks do not and cannot make a novel. While these characters aren’t quite stereotypes, they still feel cheapened somehow. I’m finding it hard to describe beyond that, it was more of a visceral reaction I had when I was reading the book. It just felt wrong. I am just now starting to realize how much this last decade and it’s laundry list of tsunamis, torture, “terrorism”, war and corruption has affected me. This is part of what I’m trying to deal with in my own writing. So I admire Whittall for trying to deal with it, and trying to do it honestly. And I admire her for writing a pretty good book that is worth reading, and doing it in and about Canada. I think once we get more people doing this, Whittall will be less of a novelty and become one more member of a group of good young Canadian writers. I look forward to it.