Bits of Books - Books by Title
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Brevity and boldness are hallmarks of Pakistani-born Mohsin's Hamid's writing. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) was a novella that crackled with tension, written in the form of a monologue addressed by the protagonist to an American he approaches in a Lahore cafe. The formal device, and the indeterminacy of the ending, brought out in an original way how, faced with the unknown, we fall back on stereotypes and set ways of thinking, not least about Muslims and beards. His new novel, equally brief, is also equally bold and absorbing, though in quite different ways and to quite different effect.
In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia the formal device is to cast the narrative as a 'self-help' book, addressed to a generic 'you' and with chapters titled Move to the City, Get an Education, etc. Using this frame, it tells the story of one man's rise from dirt-poor village boy to wealthy businessman. (The exact setting within 'Rising Asia' is not specified, though the reader might infer that it is Pakistan.) Ina detached, at times flippant, tone, our self-help guru/narrator underlines the statistical uncertainty, the sheer unlikelihood, of his protagonist's emergence from the vast ocean of poverty into which he is born: "The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in 50, so you're likely to recover. But right now you feel like you're going to die."
Scenes such as a school classroom (a class of 50 facing a teacher whose ambition had been to be an electricity meter-reader) and an unventilated paint shop ('the hiss of air, the feeling of weightlessness, the sudden pressure headaches and nausea') combine swift specificity with a sense of grinding, day in day out universality: this is how life is lived.
There is a feeling in these opening pages that we are going down a path trodden before (notably in Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger): that of a dark satire on globalisation. But Hamid's protagonist, although a go-getter, is no predatory monster. And there are other signals that the story may be breaking out of its satirical frame. In the chapter titled Don't Fall in Love our protagonist meets 'the pretty girl' whose own trajectory out of the slum - into modelling, minor television celebrity and running her own business - parallels his own. After a brief liaison, each intent on their own escape-route, they go their separate ways.
Hamid's protagonist progresses up the scale of money and prestige in a series of precisely observed vignettes - a dodgy bottled-water business; negotiating kickbacks with politicians; the ever-increasing need for armed guards - that lay bare the violent dynamics of the commercial explosion in Asia without ever caricaturing them. In middle age he takes a young wife, and they have a son on whom he dotes. (It is a measure of Hamid's narrative skill and conscientiousness that even the minor character of the wife exceeds the doormat role allotted to her, becoming someone real and autonomous.) And then things take an interesting and unexpected turn. 'This book, I must now concede,' our increasingly doubtful narrator writes, 'may not have been the very best of guides to getting filthy rich in rising Asia.' Indeed, our narrator begins to speculate that it is they, rather than the protagonist they are addressing, who is learning a lesson.
It is usually self-advertising hyperbole when authors talk of their characters 'taking on a life of their own'. But, without giving away the swift and subtle twists by which it is achieved, this is what happens here, as Hamid's self-made protagonist - and his double, the 'pretty girl' - outgrow the generic go-getting roles originally assigned them.
Interestingly, they do this not through extraordinary acts or eye-catching quirks, but through the very ordinariness with which their lives gravitate towards human rather financial concerns. The way in which the satirical frame dissolves, leaving the characters free of the mental and physical shackles that have been imposed on them by their narrator, undermines the philosophy of such self-help books far more effectively than heavy-handed satire could achieve. Like its predecessor, Hamid's beautifully conceived and exquisitely executed novel demonstrates that, in the right hands, narratorial tricks can be a serious matter, affording slants on the big realities and myths of our time unavailable to meat-and-potatoes realism.
Ever bought a self-help book? Neither have I. The idea is just too ridiculous. If you have to read a book, then you're not helping yourself, the author is doing it for you. On the other hand, where do you get help from if not from a book? If religion has turned into politics, your country is in a mess and parents don't understand the world in which you live, a book is your only hope.
'Self-help books are huge in Asia,' says the author Mohsin Hamid. 'There's been a shift, an enormous dislocation is coming to people. They haven't seen a computer before, their parents married someone from the same village, where they have had the same occupations for centuries, but now people are doing things like recycling plastic bottles. In this huge dislocation, people are looking for guidance, and their immediate circle of friends may not be able to offer it. The only other place they may look is religion, but that's become more about identity and conflict between groups, and less about addressing the discomfort of one's situation."
So Hamid has written a 12-step self-help book called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. It is full of handy advice under headings like Move to the City, Learn from a Master and Be Prepared to Use Violence. Well, all right, it's not really a self-help book - it's a novel, which is a bit weird. But it is, first of all, a joke at the expense of certain literary attitudes in the West. "There's a self-help element about how we discuss literary fiction - read this novel about China, it will be good for you because you will learn about China, it will fulfil you, make you less alone, uplift you. This self-help aspect is present in marketing and the culture."
Weirder still, it is a novel in which nobody has a name, the hero is addressed as "you" and the heroine is known only as "pretty girl". The second person is used throughout; it is, says Hamid, a form that can be both intimate and very grand. And, the final weirdness: time seems to have stopped. The hero grows from childhood to old age in a continuous present. How Hamid arrived at this cocktail of weirdnesses takes some explaining.
You have to start with the movie, out soon, made from his enormously successful novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007; his first novel, Moth Smoke, came out in 2000. He is, he points out, speeding up, if only slightly. "My books take a long time because I don't know how to write them. When I start writing I have an idea, but I find out very quickly that I am unprepared to do it. I spend a few years throwing away drafts, seemingly going nowhere, but actually teaching myself to write the book. It's not because I'm a perfectionist, but because the only book worth writing is the one you don't know how to write."
The film - directed by Mira Nair and starring Riz Ahmed, Kiefer Sutherland and Kate Hudson - is very different from the novel. The story is of a Pakistani man who succeeds as a management consultant in New York. This is, in outline, Hamid's autobiography. But the novel has a mysterious ending; the film, a much more literal one that more or less resolves the mystery. "Mira told me my screenplay had only two acts, and a film needs a third act. It was interesting for me, because I was watching the film being constructed, and there is a tendency in films to imagine much more than in novels." This process deepened his sense of the predicament - and the importance - of the novel and influenced the writing of Filthy Rich. "Of course, cinema and TV are the dominant narrative forms today. For someone like me, who works in a less dominant form, it's interesting to see how this works. It made me conscious of what the novelness of novels was, or could be."
The point being that long-form TV in particular - think The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad - has usurped the role of the realistic epic novel that aspires to describe a whole society. Cinema has also stolen the novelist's primary device of showing not telling. You tell by writing, for example, "John was uncertain"; you show by describing his uncertain behaviour. Filthy Rich started out as a description of Pakistani society and ended as a life story in the form of a self-help book. It also tells rather than shows.
In this short- to medium-length novel, Hamid creates a huge range of unnamed characters and a vast city. Neither the people nor the place need be specified; indeed, it is preferable that they aren't. He points out that Pakistani names now carry a whole baggage of specific associations that he did not want to intrude; and, as he wrote, the city of Lahore was gradually transformed into every vast Third World megacity.
Hamid has the perfect life story for a writer of this kind. "I've always been an insider-outsider. Even in Britain and America I was visibly well off, so I wasn't at the fringes of society. But, in spite of this, I continued to feel an outsider, not just in America but also in Pakistan. It is impossible for me to imagine a particular religious or ethnic grouping in which I can afford the luxury of saying, 'This is me.'"
He is 41 and was born and brought up in Lahore, but spent six years in America when his father, an academic, took up a post at Stanford University in California. At 18, he moved back to the States to study at Princeton, where he learnt his writing trade from Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison. He studied law at Harvard, found it boring and moved into management consultancy at McKinsey. Having negotiated three months' writing time a year, he managed to produce Moth Smoke, the story of the decline and fall of a rich banker in Lahore.
In fact, he only gave up his day job in 2009. He had kept consultancy going on a three-day-week basis, but finally abandoned it when he moved back to Lahore, from where he spoke to me on Skype. It may be a deracinated career, but it is far from bohemian. Indeed, Hamid rates highly the virtues of domestic stability and peace, and there is no such thing as a bohemian management consultant. He has a wife and two children and is almost struck dumb when I ask him what he does when he's not writing. "Well, I change diapers... when I am not writing I do many things, but I think I am just living, and it's very important to do that."
One of the striking insights arising from his life is that America and London may be in danger of becoming more like Pakistan. Huge inequalities are emerging in the West, and it is extreme inequality that defines Pakistani society. "In Pakistan quite dramatic, terrifying and horrific consequences await those at the bottom, and that creates both the carrot and the stick, which creates this emotional state of great insecurity. In Pakistan, the market is unfettered. There is a bumbling state trying to intervene, but not for the sake of the citizens."
"Unfetteredness makes people nervous, and I think that's how the system works. Various forms of segregation used to exist to prevent people seeing each other. But now the really poor have TV sets and can watch somebody in Malibu really close-up. It creates anxiety on both sides, the rich and the poor."
Speaking with what sounds like his management consultant's mind, he points out that London has been 'Dubai-ified': meaning we have sold it off to the very rich. Manhattan remains a giant living room for its residents, thanks to cheap cabs and restaurants; London is a living room only for the rich. "London's prosperity in the last decade has been the same as Dubai's. It has exported its housing stock. The problem is, the housing stays in the country and is not being properly used."
Meanwhile, even with all the technology giving us close-up views of other cultures, do we really see them? The current popular view of Pakistan is that of a battlefield of the war on terror. Filthy Rich shows something quite different: ordinary people getting along as best they can and desperately trying to avoid the abject poverty that rewards failure. Islamic extremists appear in one chapter in the book, and our hero drifts into their embrace, but then just drifts out again. They are not, as we seem to think, the whole story.
Like the Bosnian Aleksandar Hemon, Hamid writes about disruption and discontinuity. Hemon's life was disrupted when he was stranded in Chicago while his home city of Sarajevo was besieged by a Serbian fascist army. Hamid's disruptions are more peaceful, but no less profound. They are the disruptive inequalities of Pakistani society and those appearing in other societies in the midst of economic crisis. But they are also the disruptions - and this he shares with Hemon - caused by a new idea of the human self as a delusion emerging from a discontinuity. "What neuroscience suggests is that what we think of as the self is a kind of fabrication that very complex biochemical processes come up with."
So the hero of Filthy Rich, ageing in an eternal present, appears as 12 different personas who just happen to inhabit the same body. I think the neuroscience to which Hamid refers is illogical on this point - after all, if my self is a delusion, who is being deluded? - but as a novelist's conceit it works beautifully. The many selves of You, our hero, form a portrait gallery of a disconnected man in a discontinuous world. Self-help books that aren't novels try to make sense of all this. And fail.
'How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia' begins under a bed. With you - yes, you - under a bed. Once you quit cowering, you'll be the hero of this novel written in the second person, although there's nothing remotely heroic about you at the moment; you're so sick you can scarcely speak. The only remedy at hand is a large white radish, which your mother cooks up in a foul brew.
Courage. You'll live and what's more, you're only seven steps from getting Filthy Rich, according to the narrator. (You're also nine steps from ruin, but we'll address that in a minute.) The marriage of these two curiously compatible genres - self-help and the old-fashioned bildungsroman - is just one of the pleasures of Mohsin Hamid's shrewd and slippery new novel, a rags-to-riches story that works on a head-splitting number of levels. It's a love story and a study of seismic social change. It parodies a get-rich-quick book and gestures to a new direction for the novel, all in prose so pure and purposeful it passes straight into the bloodstream. It intoxicates.
But back to the radish. It saves you - or was it perhaps something more numinous? Luck has already begun clearing your path. 'There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and in your case, the order of your birth is one of these,' the narrator congratulates you. You're a third-born son. Third born means you're spared from going to work immediately (like your elder brother) or being married off (like your sister, who at puberty is 'marked for entry'). Third born means you're not 'a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree,' like your youngest sibling. Third born means you stay in school.
Even your illness is a blessing; it persuades your father to move the family to the city - Step 1 in getting Filthy Rich - and it's the point where the story of the individual debouches into the narrative of the nation. 'You embody one of the great changes of your time,' Hamid writes. 'Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation.'
You ascend smoothly, going from DVD rental delivery boy to young entrepreneur with a bottled water business that thrives 'to the sound of the city's great whooshing thirst,' goaded on by the narrator's edicts ('Learn From a Master,''Don't Fall in Love'), which grow steadily more sinister ('Be Prepared to Use Violence'). You marry but remain besotted with a girl from the neighborhood identified as 'the pretty girl,' now working as a model and making her own hazardous climb.
Like his compatriot, the Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif, author of 'Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,' Hamid creates characters who enact the life of the nation. But where Hanif (a former fighter pilot) favors broad burlesques - a literature of parody and attack - Hamid (a former brand consultant) is politic and deeply ironic. He grew up in Pakistan and America, with stints in Milan and Manila (where our families were friends). He's alert to the dread and distrust with which America and the Muslim world regard each other. He's never merely telling a story, he's pitting his story against prevailing narratives about Pakistan, the roots of radicalization, the unevenness of economic growth. Hence his penchant for directly addressing the reader - all three of his novels make extravagant use of the second person.
'I'm a political animal,' Hamid told the Book Review in an interview last year. 'How the pack hunts, shares its food, tends its wounded - these things matter to me.' There's no better description of what he strives to capture in this book. Where Virginia Woolf attends to the inner lives of her most peripheral characters, Hamid gives every extra a history of violence and a lurid financial back story; he revels in the dream deferred, the loan denied, the fingers lost to creditors. A technician helping perfect the water purification technology is conjured in a few swift strokes: 'He is a bicycle mechanic by background, untrained in the nuances of business, which is why he works for you, and also because, as the father of a trio of little girls and the youngest son of a freelance bricklayer who died of exposure sleeping rough at too advanced an age, he values a steady income.' By supplanting the traditional role of choice in the novel with chance, by defining characters by their modes of survival rather than their personalities, he puts powerlessness at the center of his story. And by turning from his cast of terrestrial drones to the aerial drones silently monitoring their progress, he signals to powerlessness on a global scale.
Cleverly, Hamid sets 'How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia' in an unnamed country, stripping away almost every signifier save a few that suggest we are in Pakistan. No mangoes, no mullahs, no preconceived notions. Defamiliarizing Pakistan also obviates another criticism. 'Although globalization is universally acknowledged as one of the most pressing issues of our time, it has usually proved a poor subject for fiction,' the writer Siddhartha Deb observes. Too many books exhibit 'an endless fascination for pop-culture trivia, poststructuralist meta-theories and self-referential irony.' With only a few props - an assault rifle, a packet of milk, a white radish - and only the slightest tinge of tear gas in the air, the novel feels mythic, eternal rather than frenetic. And the bare stage is the best showcase for the narrator's one-man show.
Hamid, like Kazuo Ishiguro, specializes in voices in transition, split at the root, straining for cultivation and tripping over clumsy constructions. This narrator speaks to us in two tongues, in self-help's slick banalities and the bewilderment of the striver. He's magnificently fraudulent and full of uses; he swoops in to do exposition, pans away to turn prophetic or play sociologist ('You witness a passage of time that outstrips its chronological equivalent. Just as when headed into the mountains a quick shift in altitude can vault one from subtropical jungle to semi-arctic tundra, so too can a few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia'). He can be chilling and chummy, and very hard to shake. Some of the book's more serious sections, on mortality, say, are imbued with a vestigial phoniness, and a self-referential ode to storytelling has the soul-lessness of a TED talk. It's a shame; Hamid is a stronger, stranger writer than that.
Witness the final reversal. The book ends with you, the hero, in your eighth decade, a Gatsby we never knew: an old man in a hotel room, trying to remember to take your medicines regularly. And as it turns out, there is still something left to learn, something more vital than how to get Filthy Rich. You teach us how to lose. How to relinquish health and hope; how to surrender assets to thieving relatives and one's children to America. 'Slough off your wealth, like an animal molting in the autumn,' Hamid writes. Look up the pretty girls of your youth. Find someone to play cards with. 'Have an exit strategy.'
More books on Life
More books on Politics
Books by Title
Books by Author
Books by Topic
Bits of Books To Impress