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Review: Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall/House of Anansi Press

“But we were both shaken by what we’d seen. It was as though someone had peeled the mask off certainty and our first-world assumptions about safety. Bombs happened halfway around the globe, not nearby. We were used to abstract faraway injustices and violence. We’d been cushioned our whole lives, and had no idea how to act or what to think when faced with this disaster.

Today that episode felt like ten years ago, not four. I felt so much older, drinking whiskey in the morning so I could sleep. The things I’d seen since then. The gnawing in my bones of a kind of tired I knew wasn’t healthy. But I was so used to it, it didn’t matter anymore.”

Holding Still for as Long as Possible

Holding Still for as Long as Possible by Zoe Whittall is a portrait of three people representative of the “Y” generation. These twenty somethings grew up after 9/11 in a society generously prescribing pills to numb the pain and anxiety of living in a culture on steroids. Texting their relationships; dousing their troubles with alcohol; and living in a fog, confused about who they really are, Whittal’s characters tenuously maintain a grip on their daily lives.

Josh is a female-to-male transgender working as a paramedic, and he spends his days and nights becoming more emotionally-distant from the terrible events he sees. He starts to take his emotionally detached feelings into his relationship with Amy, a rich girl who is trying to live a cool bohemian city life with her amateur film-making career. At the same time Josh is becoming distant, Amy is finding being around Josh is annoying her for no apparent reason other than their relationship is starting to become less exciting and more mundane.

Billy (real name: Hilary) gets thrown into the mix when her long-time girlfriend Marie breaks up with her and Billy moves in with Roxy, who is Amy and Josh’s mutual friend. Billy is a has-been child music star who came and went from the spotlight quickly, and blew all her money in the process. Billy tries to make a living by going to college (and constantly skipping classes) and working as a waitress, but her full-blown anxiety doesn’t leave her alone, and her ex-girlfriend is the only one who understands how to deal with Billy and her anxiety issues.

One day Billy runs into Josh and Amy on the street and immediately garners a crush on Josh. She’s too flirtatious and self-absorbed to care enough about Amy’s feelings, and immediately goes for the kill, although she uses self-protecting language at first, such as “Josh, I think you and I are going to know each other for a long time.” Josh and Amy eventually break up, though they remain together in the same apartment, and Josh continues dating Billy, even though Billy is starting to drive him crazy because she won’t fully commit to the relationship. In a turn of events, Amy starts seeing Billy’s ex, Maria, and although Amy acts as though she’s dating Maria because she’s attracted to her, there’s an obvious dig towards Billy for stealing Josh.

The characters in Holding Still for as Long as Possible are the most selfish people in Toronto, possibly the world. They never think about each others feelings, but only how others will react to them. Although Billy is self-absorbed and wallows in her anxiety problems, Josh is the most self-centered and insecure of the group. His skills as a paramedic of being unaffected by other people’s trauma has left him incapable of being expressive outside of the workplace. His impassive personality brought on the majority of difficulties in his and Amy’s romance. At one point she asks him, “You just don’t want me to be happy, do you?”

Josh is so consumed with his own feelings for the two women in his life that he doesn’t even see the problems going on in his coworkers’ lives, such as not knowing fellow paramedic Dave was gay—and even then, Josh turned it into his own problem: “He looked at me, just as close, and all of a sudden I saw that he knew about me.” When Billy and Amy get into an accident with a truck, Josh is furious at Amy for surviving, and although he is upset that Billy may not live, he still manages to spin his emotions so that he’s the victim and Billy’s the bad one: “For some reason, she thinks Billy’s the victim of my uncertainty when it’s the other way around.”

In the end, Billy and Josh deserve each other: they’re both so interested in themselves that they are a reflection of one another, two people Amy never should have had to deal with in the first place. Holding Still for as Long as Possible is a great book: there is a lot of egotism, but it’s all so realistic you’ll find yourself hating and loving the characters as they go about their daily lives and messed-up relationships. The book is honest as it captures the raw emotions of these young people who are just trying to survive the monotonous lives in which they exist. They are all trying to figure out who they want to be, but they don’t have the ability for introspection and deeper thought. Their world of technology and text-messaging, and stuffing real emotions, has left them unable to form bonds with other humans and solve their problems by sharing them face-to-face.