A dazzling portrait of a generation we've rarely seen in literature - the twenty-somethings who grew up on anti-anxiety meds, text-messaging each other truncated emotions, blurring their public and private lives.Cool. Bottle Rocket Hearts, 30-something Toronto writer Zoe Whittall's first novel, was indubitably her Gen X manifesto and love letter to mid-90's Montreal. This book seeks to define what it's like to be a queer 20-something hipster in Toronto's Parkdale neighborhood. It's a valiant attempt but the novel failed to play upon its own strengths.
I'll try here to sum up what you need to know - the book hinges on the lives of three friends/lovers living in Parkdale, Toronto's Brooklyn equivalent. None of them really has their shit together, especially when it comes to relationships. Billie, the true head case of the bunch, is a former teen idol and suffers from debilitating panic attacks. Josh is a trans paramedic and the stoic hero. He's barely hanging on to his five year relationship to beautiful and cool Amy, a burgeoning filmmaker, and to make things even more complicated he's got it good for Billie.
What really shines in this novel are the descriptions of Josh's calls - a whole seedy, unseemly underbelly that contrasts starkly with the Parkdale crew's more privileged existence. I think this contrast was supposed to underline the chaos in Billie, Josh and Amy's lives but it only defined them as worlds apart. Josh's EMS calls seethe with that terrifying element of life that is so unpredictable, dark and ill-defined.
The tangled web of relationships by contrast came off as too glossy. This is mainly a problem because I felt the characters were defined primarily by one thing - Billie's mental instability, Josh's nutty job, Amy's ability to drink everyone else under the table. Thus, when it came time for them to couple off there wasn't enough there to convince me of why they should spark.
Nor was I convinced that this is the definitive portrait of Gen Y. Mental illness, and being medicated for it, is nothing new. Nor is Gen Y particularly defined by text messaging or social media - we grew up without it, for the most part, unless you count basic email and chat (Gen Z will be that generation).There certainly wasn't the profile building and advanced social media that we have today.
What I think the novel does grasp fairly well, though, is youth's struggle with the transitory nature of life. We struggle to channel a career, we struggle to hold down a relationship, or to either craft or make peace with our identities and we seek to numb the panic we experience when everything changes so fast by filling our lives with friends, noise, drugs, sex, whatever. If only we really could hold still, but instead we are swept along.
HSFALAP is not a bad novel. The prose is solid, the intentions noble. I only seek to mercilessly dissect Whittall's work because her work is that important to me. Gen Y needs a voice. Queer females need a voice. Contemporary urban Canadians need a voice. Whittall seeks to represent all of these parties and I couldn't be more pleased that it is her strong, confidant voice that has been committed to print to bring these parties to light. I'll be first to trumpet whatever new work she puts out. I just hope it's born of passion, not concept.
Holding Still For As Long As Possible/ Zoe Whittall / Anansi / HC, 2009