Holding Still with Zoe Whittall – Renuka Chaturvedi

Consumers of queer fiction will be excited to learn what devotees already know: that on September 20th, Anansi Press released Zoe Whittall’s second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible. Whittall is the acclaimed author of Bottle Rocket Hearts, a queer coming of age story set in mid-90’s Montreal, and published in 2007 by Cormorant Press. In her new novel, Whittall continues to do what she does so well: chronicle the lives of twentysomethings who struggle like twentysomethings do—with drama, with booze and with the twin, vertiginous paths of love and sex. Holding Still follows the roughly 25-year-old lives of three protagonists living in Toronto’s west end. Amy is a filmmaker from a wealthy, sheltered WASP upbringing in North York who is experiencing her first tastes of rupture and grief. Amy’s woes stem from the decline and dissolution of her five-year relationship with Josh. Josh is a Toronto EMS worker, a shy and stolid young man who more than anything else seeks to cultivate a life of calm in the face of the frenetic nature of his work and the demise of his formerly unwavering domesticity with Amy. Billy is a former Canadian teen music idol who works in a café, in thrall to panic attacks and chronic anxiety, plagued by self-doubt and the inanition of the anxiety-prone. Arguably, the cornerstone of this novel is anxiety, and the perpetual search for stability in an anomic world.

The book’s narrative structure is mainly divided mainly between the first person perspectives of Amy, Billy and Josh, whose self-dialogue reveals their daily struggles with uncertainty and anxiety. But Whittall has buttressed the protagonists’ narration by inserting dramatic interstitial chapters narrated by peripheral characters, which document EMS responses to every day emergencies in downtown Toronto (emergencies which, as might be expected by a mind conditioned to Toronto living, involve patients with gunshots between the eyes walking and talking in a state of shock, drug overdoses, stabbings, and plenty of Vital Signs Absent). Three youths in Toronto, dating unadvisedly, with lives plugged in to cell phones and text messages, overwhelmingly electronic forms of social networking. Whittall asks: Whither a generation that has grown up plugged in to hyper-reality? What comes of always having the immediate means for communicating the rapid and myriad shifts of daily life within a powerfully concentrated city? Well, there is solicitude. Solicitude, apprehension, angst, Sturm und Drang, whatever one wishes to call it, it is there. And to her plot, as additional antitheses to her characters’ ability to hold still, Whittall adds the vicissitudes of the Love Triangle. After his breakup with Amy, Josh quickly, dubiously, takes up with Billy and all three characters struggle with the standard discomfort and awkward sociality that comes from the kind of proximity that only queer communities and remote Buddhist outposts can foist upon their members.

The jacket and interior was designed by Ingrid Paulson

In Bottle Rocket Hearts, Whittall demonstrated she could write, and with Holding Still the author has establishes that she is a gifted writer indeed. And, in Holding Still, Whittall’s voice has matured. Rarely does one see an author of Whittall’s age and experience who writes with such a strong authorial voice. She is a vivid, visceral writer, whose words are reminiscent of the honesty and intensity of Michelle Tea. But unlike Tea, Whittall’s text is polished and elegant, despite periodic inconsistencies of fact.

Throughout Holding Still, Whittall confirms her ability to command the full attention of her readers by the power of her prose -her romanticism, her engaging and eminently accessible writing style, and her ability to pepper her storyline with intelligent insight. Indeed, perhaps the most rewarding aspects of reading Holding Still are Whittall’s sweet, short insights, the keen reflections that will resonate with her readers or, at worst, give them genuine pause for thought. At times, Whittall’s insights are so apt and her analyses of her subject matter so true that an audience with the benefit of age and experience will read her words and either look back and nod in recognition, or cringe at younger, more questionable versions of themselves.

And the characters in Holding Still are truly emblematic of their age and inexperience. Amy, Billy and Josh constitute an age group whose poor decisions are built seamlessly into the lives they lead, causing boundless ruptures yet few pauses for constructive reflection amid the endless appraisals of their lives. Case in point, the minds of all three characters are bent on certainty, craving it as they crave the alcohol they consume in heroic proportions. But being twenty-somethings the characters do not yet realize (though Billy is starting to suspect) that, like an ill-advised Love Triangle, alcohol wears mental stability apart at the seams. Such sweet contradiction demonstrates Whittall’s ability to be bang on, to write characters with lives redolent of their position in life. Of course, the reader can decide for themselves if Whittall’s attention to metatextuality is intentional, or just a pleasant coincidence. Regardless, Whittall does write engaging characters and her most recent attempt is no exception. Amy, whose long red hair and haughty manner are reminiscent of Anne-Marie MacDonald’s Kathleen in Fall on Your Knees, expresses a sense of entitlement to happiness that only a lifetime of privilege can afford. In fact, her shock over the demise of her relationship with Josh demonstrates more about what Amy expects out of life than the degree of her devotion to her former lover. Amy, like Billy and Josh, desires steadiness and security. But unlike the other two characters who have experienced loss on a grand enough scale to know that life’s stabilities are transitory, Amy is still naïve enough to expect constancy in an inconstant world.

Through Josh, Whittall has spoken, if inadvertently, to cis-gendered writers who create trans characters. At the time of the novel’s events, Josh has been over seven years on testosterone has re-constructed his body. through surgery, has transitioned. And with Josh, Whittall has done a rare thing-she has written a character as a trans man without binding him to the identity of “Trans Man.” Aside from a few scant references to his transition, Whittall writes Josh as a man, full stop. In so doing, Whittall has complicated the way queer fiction has hitherto chronicled trans identities as ineffaceably trans by eliding, for the most part, that Josh has spent most of his life in a female body (for a notable exceptions, see Felicia Luna Lemus’ Like Son). Readers will find that Whittall explicitly and intentionally dismisses the muck and mire of identity politics to allow her character to be what he has always known himself to be, a man.

Whittall’s move here is not only thought provoking, but in many ways quite progressive. So much of trans identities in literature get written with an intense focus on the body. In this book, Whittall has done something quite different. Josh has sex, but Whittall only refers to it as sex, she does not think it necessary to get into the mechanics of how trans men get it on. And it is so refreshing to read about a fictional trans man that is simply allowed to fuck. For these reasons Josh represents an important contribution to queer literature, inasmuch as in Josh we see Whittall’s attempts to redefine the territory trans characters occupy in fiction. And her achievement is sure to generate discussion. Are Josh’s 17 years in the body of a woman relevant to who he is as a man? Whittall does not think so, or rather, Josh does not. It is actually difficult to differentiate what Whittall believes about her characters, because formulating opinions on the characters in this book requires a surprisingly literal reading, insofar as the characters are to be understood on the basis of their own self-descriptions. And here we arrive at a potential weakness of Whittall’s novel: We must take the characters at their word. Ultimately, we must read the characters on the basis of their self-descriptions, which is a rather unconventional means of interpreting a character. Perhaps this is a sign that Whittall is still maturing as a writer. This promises great things for her future work.

But for now, as far as character development goes, Whittall’s writing though elegant and engaging and visceral, lacks subtlety. Does an author really want their characters simply announcing how they feel? One of the most powerful aspects of Margaret Laurence’s masterpiece The Stone Angel is that readers are not to take the protagonist Hagar Shipley at her word. Shipley’s character must be discerned from her relationships with others, from the way she moves through the world in spite of how she sees herself. In Holding Still, the characters tell you outright what you need to know about them. This saps some intellectual discovery out of the reading process, which, frankly, diminishes the pleasure of the text and leaves more questions than answers.

In an oddly related vein, one unanswered question is whether Whittall has accomplished what she set out to do in this novel, namely to delineate the effects of SARS, Hurricane Katrina, and hyper-reality on a generation growing into adulthood that has always been plugged in. Many authors have seen a shifting global landscape as productive of the fissures that plague daily life, causing crises of identity and purpose (Zola’s Les Rougons-Macquart cycle is excellent for this). But what specifically the new millennium’s global currents produce in the lives of urban young adults, the specific social effects of specific global conditions, and the interpersonal effects of the explosion of contemporary communications technology are not fully articulated by Whittall, though she expressly wants to explore these relationships. The reader is left to presume what the connections might be, to infer and guess.

Inferring and guessing from a richly written text is enjoyable, but in this book the necessity of inference is puzzling given the way Whittall’s has written her characters so explicitly. And this puzzlement is emblematic of a tension in Whittall’s work. Namely, the reader must listen to the characters as they explicate their lives, rather than gleaning character from their behaviours, interactions and reactions, but Whittall leaves answers to her larger questions nebulous and up to the reader. What remains unclear is whether this is intentional or indicative of inconsistencies in writing style and purpose. What Whittall does well she does really well, namely, writing about interpersonal relationships between people who cannot quite bring themselves to see the world as something that exists and persists outside of their own lives. Where Whittall falls short is in linking the individual lives to something bigger, something beyond the personalities and relationships that are productive of the self-same phenomena.

What does not come across in Whittall’s book is that individuals are not merely thinkers of ideas and interpreters of their worlds, but are operating in time, place and context, all of which organize their ideas and interpretations. Whittall needs to link the big picture with the small picture, but the concerns of the characters she develops in this book are too narrow to engage with questions of greater import. And as such, the novel comes across as a little fluffy. Whittall spends so much time in dialogue within and between characters that she does not demonstrate how contemporary technologies and securities are productive of a particular kind of instability that this world, and only this world, can produce. While Whittall is without a doubt a writer to watch out for, it is also true that she has yet to branch out into speaking about issues of greater consequence than getting drunk, wrestling with existential questions via solipsistic internal dialogue, and having sex. Though to be fair, is this not what our twenties were largely about?

Unfortunately, as Whittall herself attests, the characters are not commentaries on anything other than their own individual characters. In Whittall’s words, their instability is the product of a “quarter-life crisis,” and not something supra-individual. Were the characters meant to be commentaries on something larger than themselves, then the book would be very impressive in its layering of multiple meanings and its ability to link concretely the wider social, political and technological trends with their manifestations in individuals and in interpersonal relationships. Instead, one should take the book for what it is literally: a well-written novel with engaging characters, where the reader is eager to find out more more more The book has the power to spark debate, and this is indicative of a book well written. I look forward to Whittall’s next novel.

Interview with Zoe Whittall

As living proof of Barthes’ seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” what Whittall intends in Holding Still for as Long as Possible and what comes across are sometimes very different things. But, one might say that the prevalence of points of contention is the crux of a good novel. I interviewed Zoe Whittall earlier this month on Holding Still, being a writer, anxiety and how she might fare if incarcerated.

Renuka Chaturvedi: Originally the book was to be titled Doing Nothing For As Long As Possible, and now it’s got the Holding Still title. I was hoping you would talk about why one title was chosen over the one originally proposed.

Zoe Whittall: The book changed so significantly while I wrote it. It started out with Billy, Amy and Josh having no idea what they wanted to do with their lives after university. Then I made Josh a paramedic and Amy a filmmaker and the stasis I wanted to capture was no longer real. It was just Billy who was stuck, wanting to “do nothing”, while figuring things out with her anxiety. She needed the spinning to stop, for a moment to breathe, and she just couldn’t get it no matter how many times she called in sick to work. It ended up being too negative a title, and seeming too “slacker-generation”. Sometimes you have to start out with a big idea and mould it down from big concept to real stories people might care about. And these characters are like the much younger siblings or even children of Gen X-ers. It just seemed more accurate to change it to Holding Still, especially given how much anxiety plays into the characters’ lives. It was also a play on how often medics have to tell patients to hold still.

RC: Your characters often draw the distinction in their internal dialogues between people who have anxiety and people who don’t. It’s how your characters in one way make sense of people, by dividing people into categories of anxious vs. non-anxious. But the way the characters draw these divisions ultimately allow them to single themselves out as fraught, or fucked-up. All these details sound like they come from a writer who understands anxiety.

ZW: Yes. I do understand it. I hope I managed to make a distinction between people who get anxious, like everyone, and people who have disordered anxiety, like Billy. I had panic disorder on and off for most of my adult life and when I turned 30 I really got a hold of it, and was able to bring it into perspective and recover. I was never as bad as Billy—I exaggerated a lot of my experiences to make her a more compelling and tragic character, but I understand her. There was a brief time when I only left my house to get in a taxi, and taxi-ed home, even when I was living on minimum wage. I thought it was just a funny observation, the arbitrary things people with severe anxiety will see as safe. Like, I won’t have an aneurism in my kitchen, but I might in the grocery store. The subway is too stressful, but this car driven by a stranger is good. Things will be fine if I wear my lucky necklace, or things like that. It’s so absurd and kind of hilarious how we can organize things we can’t control in order to calm ourselves.

RC: What role has anxiety played in your experiences as a writer?

ZW: It plays into my experiences in life— but it also made me oddly comfortable with uncertainty. I think someone who understands occasionally being too afraid to leave the house can take other leaps in life—like trying to be an author in such a tough business—because you’ve already faced the worst fears. Rejection by the literary community after you’ve faced rejection from your own brain, it isn’t so bad.

RC: Can you talk a bit about your motivations for writing Josh’s character the way you did? What did you want to accomplish by creating this character the way you have?

ZW: I was wary of other books by cis-gender authors who use and exploit trans characters as a way to spice up their narratives, who assume all readers are cis-gender and heterosexual and want to get a glimpse of this “odd person”, the same reason people watch talk shows. I purposely didn’t focus on Josh’s body because so often trans people are dissected and gawked at, especially at the hands of non-trans artists. Mostly, it simply didn’t make sense for the story. I wasn’t telling the story of Josh’s transition. His gender identity was never something I wanted to dwell on because it wouldn’t be organic to the plot or the characters. He’s a guy. His friends and lovers know that. It’s never questioned. He transitioned eight years before the book starts, the book takes place over eight months. The characters weren’t going to sit around the kitchen table drinking and suddenly start asking him invasive questions they already know the answer to. If the readers are confused by what they don’t know, then that’s fine. I like to read books that don’t answer all my questions, that make me wonder and suppose and imagine the worlds presented. I do hope I’ve described him well enough to imagine him, see him walk through the book, believe him as a whole being.

Trans people are part of my life, and the lives of these particular characters. It’s not a plot point or a weird aspect of their lives. It’s just their lives. I wanted to make sure I was careful not to insert myself into this literary history of non-trans authors misrepresenting trans people for their own benefit. That said, I’m open to criticism. I know I’ve made mistakes in this book and in all my work; it’s a learning process and sometimes that’s one of the hard things about making art public. You fuck up, you have to be ready to discuss it. I had a trans friend read the manuscript at various stages. He said to me, at one point when I was being super wussy and worried about having a trans character, that writers are always going to piss someone off. Especially when there are so few writers in our communities writing about our communities in real time. You could probably put us all in one room and we could have lunch. My friend suggested that it’s better to have queer and trans characters in a literary world when that’s still really rare, and that representation is going to make a lot of readers happy.

RC: I found your writing vivid and compelling and the story enjoyable, despite what I felt as an absence of likeable characters. Billy is a wreck, Amy is cold and haughty, Josh is coloured with an arrogance and a self-centeredness that is pretty unappealing. Is the writing of the characters itself a commentary?

ZW: No, the writing of the characters themselves are not a commentary. I find it interesting that you find the narrators unlikeable. They are certainly flawed, but I think the best characters always are. Billy IS a wreck. I love wrecks. I love reading books about girls who are way too sensitive or fucked up to live their lives all that effectively. Amy is sometimes cold, I suppose, in a few instances, though I would not say all the time, and I have no idea how you see Josh as arrogant. He’s almost cripplingly shy most of the time, except at work, and is so tender towards Billy. Books can be so different for every reader. People have come up to me with ideas about why I wrote certain things in Bottle Rocket Hearts—fascinating theories or assumptions about my personal life based on content— and they’ve been so surprising to me. Things I’ve never imagined. I like trying to make sense of those readings.

RC: Do you have any advice to people who want to make a living by writing?

ZW: If you mean want to make a living by writing literary fiction, as opposed to teen vampire novels or corporate copy, my advice is to read a lot, support other writers by buying books, and read some more. Writers who are first starting out often make the mistake of thinking it is easy, and that the first thing they write is gold and deserves to be published. It rarely happens this way. Don’t ever hand in your first to tenth draft of anything. Don’t think about publishing or the business side of things until you have a solid finished draft. Get a good, solid trade or day job that has nothing to do with publishing and allows you time and energy to work on your off time.

When you do have time to write fiction for long stretches, structure your time well, budget responsibly, don’t get discouraged over grant rejections, because it’s all a lottery. Save ten percent of all your grants income for taxes, learned that the hard way, don’t pay attention to how much your peers get for advances. Read reviews and learn how to suck it up when they’re bad. Always show up on time for things and never read over the time allotted for you on stage, I think that’s so disrespectful to audiences and readers.

RC: You’ve been quoted as saying “Race and gender – well, I think it’s impossible to not be impacted by race, gender, class, sexual orientation – all those things – unless you live in a treehouse in the middle of nowhere, but it would likely come up whenever you ventured into town for Cheerios.” But your characters are pretty much all white, and this novel reflects white, queer experiences and does not reflect the experiences of queer men and women of colour/s. Could you speak a bit to the challenge I’m making here?

ZW: This challenge is valid. It’s impossible to not be impacted by identity. I don’t always feel comfortable appropriating voices from cultures other than my own because there is a long history of white writers thinking they can tell everyone’s stories for them, but at the same time, this kind of ideology runs the risk of essentialism. I don’t think we should only write entirely from experience. In this book I’ve written from the voice of a rich girl, I’ve never been one. I’ve never been a folk singer like Billy. I’ve never grown up with a violent family or lived in shelters or identified as transsexual or worked as a paramedic like Josh. I think about these issues a lot, as I’m learning to tell stories in different ways. There are many different kinds of absences in the text and I would say in all texts.

RC: How do you think you would do in prison?

This is the weirdest question I’ve ever been asked in an interview. I love it! I would be terrible in prison. I’m not tough at all. I think I would be terrified. I’ve never been in a fight. I’m not good in groups. Bullies in high school always figured out I was easily intimidated. I’d probably find some big protective butch right away and try to ride it out, hopefully have some time to write.

Image Credits: The jacket and interior was designed by Ingrid Paulson.

Renuka Chaturvedi is a Ph. D. Candidate studying in Ottawa, Ontario. In her spare time she reads fiction, mails sex toys to people who pay for them, and gives her opinion freely.

Zoe Whittall is a critically acclaimed fiction writer and poet. Her debut novel Bottle Rocket Hearts was a Globe and Mail “Top 100” book and a Quill & Quire Best Book. In 2007, she was named Emerging Author of the Year by NOW Magazine. Zoe Whittall lives in Toronto.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/10/2009 – 22:52.

I *heart* Zoe Whittall

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 11/10/2009 – 22:37.

this makes me scared to write queer fiction.

holy – the expectations!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/04/2009 – 01:16.

cis-gendered

wtf?

Submitted by Charlie (not verified) on Thu, 11/05/2009 – 12:26.

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/cisgender

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/05/2009 – 17:35.

still, wtf.

Submitted by UFC Forum (not verified) on Fri, 10/21/2011 – 07:11.

it sounds weired :/