[Véhicule Press; 2022]
“Everyone who does well on the phones has something special about them,” says Lise Carbonneau, the Sheryl Sandbergian director of Nutri-Fort, a weight loss center in 1984 Montreal. “With you,” she tells Muna, “if I’m honest, I think they like your accent. Your sound and your mannerisms. It’s almost as if . . . as if talking to you doesn’t count.”
In Hotline, his fourth novel, Dimitri Nasrallah fictionalizes the experience of his mother, who emigrated from Lebanon to Montreal in the 1980s and, unable to find work as a French teacher, took a job as a weight-loss center phone operator. Muna Heddad, the 29-year-old protagonist of Hotline, has just arrived in Montreal with her eight-year-old son, Omar. As a new employee at Nutri-Fort, Muna is encouraged to change her professional name to the less foreign-sounding “Mona.” Muna begins shouldering the sorrows of her Canadian clients, all the while metabolizing her own grief: the disappearance of her husband, Halim, and her complete isolation in a Montreal that is both literally and metaphorically cold to her. “Sometimes I feel like I’m lonelier than all of the people on the phones combined,” Muna confesses. “Sometimes I think I’m absorbing them all, and they’re turning me into someone I don’t want to be.”
Clients love Mona on the phone, but when Muna applies for jobs or apartments, these same people ignore her. “The big joke at the end of it all,” Muna muses after getting off the phone, “is that the person you’ll talk to is me, someone you would never talk to in a million years. Ya rabi!” Hotline explores this auditory axis of racism, recently depicted with fantastical flair in Boots Riley’s 2018 film Sorry to Bother You, in which a Black telemarketer adopts a “white voice,” and chaos ensues. Like Riley, Nasrallah traces the desires of white customers. Muna’s white clients seem to value her racialized otherness, as her accent—according to Lise Carbonneau—invites them to speak more vulnerably than they would to a white phone operator. Yet, at the same time, Muna senses the racist imperative not to be too foreign: both on the phones, and in real life.
Muna’s work persona is just the beginning of her identity crisis. As she struggles with the imperative to “assimilate,” the demands of motherhood, and her desire for a husband who is presumed dead, Muna becomes a kind of shapeshifter. Growing more and more invested in her job, Muna begins to imagine her boss as an avatar of having-it-all womanhood. “When I’m not at work, I find myself thinking about Lise more than I should,” Mona confesses. “She has such grace, poise, articulation, a theatrical flair that commands a room. Wherever Lise is, she’s the centre of that place. Do I want to be Lise Carbonneau?”
Meanwhile, Muna prioritizes her son’s comfort, giving him the bedroom in their tiny apartment while she sleeps on the living room couch with the TV to lull her to sleep. “This is what I love most about television in Canada,” says Muna. “If you leave it on all the time and forget about it, it will become another voice in your head telling you what to think about yourself.” As Muna moves between dreams and waking, she struggles to discern which voice among many is hers. In the lowest moment of the novel — the middle of Montreal’s winter — Muna reveals that it’s the loss of her own desires that has invited all these other voices into her life: “I’ve made it through this first month of 1987 with my desires eaten down to the whiteness of their bones. I am barely a skeleton of what I once wanted. Only through starving myself of these urges can I begin to see the ghosts of my life as friends, as confidants.”
The most persistent ghost is Halim, Muna’s missing husband. After Muna’s nightly shower, the steam appears to take the form of Halim and Muna imagines talking with her husband, touching him. As she settles into her sofa bed, with the television turned on, Muna brings Halim with her:
I can make his presence stronger so that he doesn’t fade back into the fabric. I can feel his lips in all their softness and the bristle of his unshaven chin. I feel them on my mouth and my cheeks and my nose and my eyes. I let his hand nestle behind my back and pull me closer. On TV, the dramatic swells of the old movie’s orchestra bring a pivotal moment to life, and for a moment my whole world drifts into Technicolor. I’m suspended in disbelief. This must be what happiness feels like. When I wake up alone to a silent screen in the middle of the night, I find my pillow damp, bunched up between my legs. The television’s test card screen awaits the beginning of another broadcast day. In the dark, I strip the pillow if its casing and hand it to dry by the open window.
Death does not mean the end of desire. Nasrallah thoughtfully develops Muna’s erotic imagination, most significantly in her conjuring of Halim, but also in her changing relationship to her own body, and even her strange attraction to Lise Carbonneau. Nasrallah has a gift for rendering the smallest details of embodiment. Hotline evokes the violent cold of the Montreal winter; the warm skin of Muna and Omar, who constantly get sick in this new city; the itchiness of their secondhand clothes; and the hot water of Muna’s showers — her only alone time, with her body and memories laid bare.
Muna’s return to herself, by the novel’s end, is in part the return of her desires. She moves beyond the self-sacrificial model of motherhood that initially characterizes her relationship with Omar. A deft writer of parent-child relationships, in Hotline as in his second novel, Niko (2011), Nasrallah demonstrates how easily a child can become the center of their parent’s world. Muna eventually learns that Omar needs his mother not to sacrifice her happiness for him, but to be honest with him, to bare her grief over the loss of Halim and to share her own needs. By the end of the novel, Muna has begun to do this.
Hotline is certainly a feel-good novel. Nasrallah charts Muna and Omar’s upward trajectory, from poverty to stability, grief to hope. Muna meets allegorical enemies — like Omar’s obnoxious, assimilationist French teacher — but she mostly meets friends: a kindly landlord, a generous medical student, and a group of vivacious Chinese women who pay Muna for French lessons. Nasrallah knows that it’s not that simple, that grief isn’t a matter of stages, just as immigration isn’t a matter of signing papers. But Muna has come closer, and we celebrate her return to the world of the living.
Fiona Bell is a writer and a translator of Russophone literature. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
This post may contain affiliate links.