Mahsa Mohebali's novel is a snappy, inventive picaresque with an unforgettable lead.
A series of apocalyptic earthquakes and aftershocks rock Tehran. Some residents attempt to flee, yet traffic snarls the roadways. Fights erupt. Cell service blinks out. In the midst of the growing bedlam strides Shadi, twenty something, questioning life, low on opium and looking to score. So begins Mahsa Mohebali’s exhilarating In Case of Emergency, a novel originally published in Iran in 2008 (as نگران نباش, Don’t Worry) and now available in English thanks to translator Mariam Rahmani and the Feminist Press. Covering a single day and told exclusively through Shadi’s first-person point-of-view, Mohebali’s tale is like a pinball machine on overdrive, a rapid-fire affair that succeeds thanks to the author’s playful repetitions and her choice to grant her narrator’s quirks and asides free rein on the page. Though I found that the novel doesn’t offer much in the way of character development, Shadi’s wanderings—and her eye on contemporary life in Iran—fill the short volume with memorable thrills and verbal flourishes.
Mohebali opens the story in medias res with a topsy-turvy scene. Shadi wakes to her bed trembling. Her mother is screaming and her older brother is trying to get the family ready to leave the city. Shadi admits that she spent the night stoned. She rolls a ball of opium under her tongue, complaining about her nearly depleted stash. As the drug takes effect (“A little creature sets out from the lowest vertebra of my spine, calmly crawls up, then hurls itself from my neck into my skull”)—the action turns surreal. Mohebali rarely employs dialogue tags, so while Shadi wanders through her home, the opium hitting harder with each step, it’s sometimes difficult to know who is speaking. This adds to the chaos, and it also shows confidence from the author, who expects the audience to quickly pick up the novel’s stripped-down style in these first fractured moments. Shadi’s mother tries to reach Shadi’s father on the phone; Shadi’s younger brother, Arash, spouts off about revolution; the panicked maid, Miss Gelin, wonders how Shadi’s grandmother, Nana Molouk, has vanished during an emergency; Shadi sees a text message from her friend, Ashkan, who is threatening to kill himself.
It isn’t long before Shadi gives her family the slip and heads out into the city, first trying to find Ashkan, and later hoping to contact one of her dealers. With these foundations of In Case of Emergency’s threadbare plot, a hero’s journey ensues. Shadi encounters picaresque vignettes along the way to her destinations—navigating through packed streets, tussling with rollerblading teens—and though none of the interactions lead to great fortune or revelation, they provide opportunity for Mohebali’s narrative techniques to come alive. In her helpful translator’s note, Mariam Rahmani mentions Mohebali’s use of repetition, wondering if English audiences will see the device as “lazy and lowly,” while defending the technique as “well respected in the Farsi canon, perhaps because of the way couplets historically lean on conjugated verbs for easy rhymes.” Indeed, the repetition in Mohebali’s prose is anything but lazy, building a rhythm for Shadi’s day, adding beats to the frenetic nature of each scene, and at times signaling similarities between characters. For example, nearly everyone—prosperous, tragic, sober, drugged, human, canine—climbs stairs “two by two.” Shadi also describes various men in the novel, including Arash, as possessing “jackal-jawed smile[s],” a recurrence that comes to signify a certain breed of young men, desperate for attention and keen on playing the role of tough guys.
Moreover, Shadi’s repetitions feel at times like old jokes, balms in a world gone out of control. She numbers her cargo pant pockets (“I take a pack of cigarettes out of pocket #206,” “I reach into pocket #304,” “I extract my phone from pocket #206”) as if she doubled as a secret agent. She refers to nonsense versions of Newton’s laws, from “think not when coming down for thou thinkst out of thine ass” to “thou shalt keep thy lighter within a half-meter radius at all times” that she confuses as the hours tick by, asking herself “Which one of Newton’s laws was it that says keep your cigarette and lighter within thirty centimeters at all times?” Considering her external disposition is one of disinterest—in her family, in whether Ashkan lives or dies, in the hostility she witnesses in public—it’s these patterned internal asides that shed light on Shadi’s true nature.
Perhaps the most effective of these digressions drops humor almost entirely for sentimentality couched in criticism. Though she rarely utters a kindness aloud, Shadi engages in jags of thoughts directly addressing other characters, using “you” in place of the target’s name. About her older brother, Bobak, Shadi thinks, “Bitch, how did you get so pretty? Too bad you’re a mama’s boy who won’t cut the cord.” While listening to Arash ramble about revolution, she thinks, “I wish you’d never grown up. I wish you didn’t have all that fuzz on your chest and cheeks and I wish I could swim with your arms clasped around my neck like old times.” And when she sees her friend, Sara, late in the novel, Shadi unloads the following:
Ever since first grade you’ve been there beside me. At my desk or me at yours. On the seesaw or on the swings. In the big black car that used to pick you up. Or in this very garden, playing hide-and-seek, laughing, laughing, laughing. So when did you disappear? You went to Paris then all of a sudden the sorrow of exile seized you and like a ghost you popped up in the crates of herbs and tomatoes for sale at Tajrish Square. So that I said to myself, see how all that hash is finally catching up to you? See how you’ve become melancholic and hallucinate in broad daylight?
These tangents contradict Shadi’s terse verbal exchanges, and they add elements of monologue to the traditional blow-by-blow narration one might expect from the first person. They round off Shadi’s character, providing sympathy for someone who otherwise may be tough to root for, yet they also prevent her companions from knowing her deeper thoughts. The result is a double-edged sword. By novel’s end, Shadi is fully realized, but I would be lying if I said I felt the same about her co-stars. These secondary characters remain two-dimensional, left to react solely to Shadi’s sarcastic quips and verbal dodges.
Despite this flaw, In Case of Emergency is a potent critique of contemporary life in Iran, both in its depiction of narcotic use (translator Rahmani notes that “Iran had the highest per capita opiate use in the world” at the time of the novel’s conception) and in its observations of wealth. Shadi and her well-to-do family possess the luxury of potentially abandoning Tehran for safer pastures. When Shadi sees walls of traffic attempting to leave the city, she notes the automobiles of middle- to upper-class citizens, dubbing one driver “Prince Peugeot,” and she watches a flood of women cramming into an ATM to withdraw funds, turning the machine into “a beehive.” Those left behind are a mixture of loudmouth youth like Arash, elderly people with little access to freedom, and families huddled on blankets, waiting for soldiers to hand out rations. When first published, In Case of Emergency took home a Hooshang Golshiri Literary Award—a major Iranian literary award celebrating contemporary writing—and it’s easy to see why. With its snappy tour of Tehran and engaging, complicated protagonist, the novel is hard to forget.
© 2022 by Benjamin Woodard. All rights reserved.