A new Mohsin Hamid novel is reason for celebration and that is saying a lot for a writer who has written only three novels till date including this one.His first novel Moth Smoke (2000) was insanely brilliant and haunting and opened the doors of upper class Pakistani society for a world audience. The Reluctant Fundamentalist(2007) which has just been made into a film by Mira Nair was not as good but easily one of the better books of the year.Both novels experimented boldly and confidently with form, using multiple voices and topical essays such as the role of air-conditioning in the lives of its main characters in the first and a dramatic monologue in the second.In the latest book he uses the conceit of a second person narrative to fashion a novel of grand universal themes structured like an inane self help book.
While the structure is of a self help book, the non-narrative passages which dispense advise are very self conscious of the self help genre and correctly identify even religious text as self help. Each chapter is titled like a self help book and contains an important phase in the life of its unnamed protagonist and its small cast of nameless characters.In addressing his protagonist as “you” and observing how he rises in society through a mix of ingenuity, hard work and ruthlessness, following the pithy advise contained in the title of the chapter, he acquaints us with a copybook rags to riches story.
At the onset I fell bang into the trap of thinking this is a rehash of that other favorite book of mine,The White Tiger.While Arvind Adiga’s novel was a searing study of the possible dehumanizing effects of extreme poverty,Hamid is trying something profound and universal.In not using a single proper noun in the book, leaving even the city nameless, he stays true to the Asia part of the title.While I visualized the action taking place in Pakistan by the time I put the book down I could just as easily imagine I had read about the journey of a Chinese boy from the rural hinterland to the buzzing megapolis of Shanghai.
While both his earlier protagonists did everything wrong by the standards of what this self help book prescribes and what our mothers do too, here “you” gets most things right materialistically but finds himself alone at the end, very rich but very alone.He is ultimately redeemed by his one act of not listening to the self help prescription, namely falling in love with “the pretty girl” who remains so and continues to be referred to as “ the pretty girl” till the very end, when they unite to provide each other the ultimate redemption, the supreme comfort of companionship in old age.This end made me think of Michael Hanake’s brilliant and searing film Amour which can act as its cinematic climax.Most importantly in talking down to “you” he also manages to speak to us directly, looking us in the eye, we are forever juxtaposing our lives next to the protagonists and evaluating it through the prism of “you’s” progress.
The book clearly picks up gravitas midway through its economical length, as if Hamid finds his voice and rises above the contrivance of the second person device, which reveals its full utility towards the end and finds itself worthy of actually delivering self help.Perhaps the fact that he did not have to match the chapters to a time period permitting anachronisms if the novel ends in the present day, or a leap into the uncertain future if it does not, allows him to impart a sense of timelessness to the arc the story.Another way to look at the book is as a case study of the quintessential Asian business mogul, written not by a fawning business journalist but by a dispassionate insider.
Hamid never cribs and accepts the world as it is, he shows us, in a mirror, a second hand life lived according to textbook advise and the result, which we must interpret on our own.How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia follows the trajectory of his work which to me is a keen examination of the human condition as an exercise in survival while being the handmaiden of a ruthless probabilistic world.
It is ultimately an existential drama rendered in a cold sterile self righteous and condescending tone of a self help guru. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia will not make you a mineral water magnate like “you”, but it can help you take a long hard look at your life, if you are interested that is.Otherwise it is glittering prose from a writer at the height of his powers.