An orphan

September 14, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Okay, so here’s what happened. A couple of months ago, I was contacted by the books editor at The Walrus, who asked if I’d be interested in contributing to their fall review roundup of big books. Always happy to oblige my colleagues in the book review biz, particularly when they offer to exchange money for a bunch of words, I eagerly agreed. After a bit of back-and-forth, he assigned me a brief review of Zoe Whittall’s second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible. I dutifully read the novel and penned a short review. Upon completing this task, I went into my day job at Quill & Quire magazine, where I was told that we had hired a new staff writer: Zoe Whittall. At which point I emitted a Homer Simpsonesque “D’oh!” accompanied by a vicious slap to the forehead from which I’m still recovering.

Long story short, I felt that the appearance of conflict that would accrue to my reviewing the work of someone who would be a colleague by the time the review appeared was too great, and I reluctantly withdrew the piece. Of course, that left me with a completed review on my hands, and no place to print it. Fortunately, ’round these parts I feel free to toss my scruples to the wind. And so, with the above explanation serving as full disclosure, I’m printing the review here. In case you might be interested.

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Holding+Still+coverHolding Still for as Long as Possible. Zoe Whittall; House of Anansi Press, $29.95 cloth, 304 pp., 978-0-88784-234-4

“You are all a lost generation.”

Add cell phones with texting capability and the kind of jacked-up paranoia fostered by disasters such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and Gertrude Stein might easily have been referring to the twentysomethings who people Zoe Whittall’s second novel. Josh is a paramedic who mends bodies but has trouble mending his own psyche; Billy is an erstwhile teen music idol who suffers crippling panic attacks; and Amy is a documentary filmmaker trying to deal with her creeping sense of anomie in the wake of a dissolving relationship. Over the course of the novel, these three young adults circle each other, drinking heroic amounts of alcohol and trying to assuage their anxieties about the meaning of their lives and the uncontrollable forces of the world around them.

Holding Still for as Long as Possible is a clear improvement over Whittall’s affected debut, Bottle Rocket Hearts. A pervasive sense of authenticity runs throughout the novel, whether the focus is on the practices of EMS paramedics or on the mental anguish fostered by repeated attempts to drown out reality in a sea of booze and casual sex.

If Whittall’s novel evinces certain technical weaknesses – the inclusion of an artificial deus ex machina climax and a somewhat superfluous epilogue – it is nonetheless a testament to an author who is improving with each successive outing. The novel contains real emotion; a reader can’t help but appreciate the humanity in these characters, even when the characters seem unable to locate the humanity in themselves.