Book Review – How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Bursting with irreverent humour and swagger, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia will go down in the history books as Mohsin Hamid’s coming-of-age novel. Those history books, however, will be written outside Pakistan.
The novel follows the fortunes of an unnamed protagonist as he moves from poverty to prosperity in an unnamed Asian country. Along the way, he encounters danger, infatuation, success and disappointment – all of which he uses to learn, to grow and to transform his destiny.
The storyline is general enough to appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and one can see why the book has struck such a chord with reviewers in the West. The story is told in an effortlessly global voice, but from an insider’s perspective. That is the perfect combination for a reader who does not belong to this region and who cannot hope to Google all the nuances (read: gory details) of social climbing in a foreign transitional society. Hamid was quoted recently at a literary festival as saying he kept his readers in mind while writing. It probably goes to his credit that the readers he visualises are not just South Asians. In all honesty, Hamid is one of the few truly international Pakistani writers from his generation and that should count for something.
For a reader from Pakistan, however, the novel’s contents take on a different significance.
This is our lived experience Hamid is writing about, after all. The meta-issues he picks up, such as environment, corruption, violence and class warfare, are enormously relevant for anyone living in Pakistan right now, regardless of economic opportunity or social status. Readers in Karachi will know the fear of having a cold revolver stuck to their temples, while readers in Lahore may feel faintly sick when they think about the industrial effluents contaminating their groundwater resources. Readers anywhere in Pakistan, or South Asia, will understand the frustration of having to bribe their way through multiple tiers of government. These issues are real; they overlap directly with our lives in one big, geometric mess of tangent circles. Unfortunately, there is a problem with the way these issues are treated in the book.
Hamid weighs in on themes of social inequality in an informed way, but is never quite able to immerse himself enough in his characters’ lived realities to really do justice to these themes. The readers are provided insights into human nature and social interaction that give the novel an air of glib authenticity, but we do not get a sense of knowing the characters or their motivations intimately apart from what the author spells out for us. In other words, the characters do not capture our imagination. Even the protagonist, the details of whose private life we are made privy to throughout the book, remains a dark horse to the end – difficult to own and to support.
At the risk of speculating, one possible reason for this disconnect could be that Hamid’s characters struggle with a poverty that he has never known. He gives us a window into their lives when the story demanded that we actually be able to climb into their heads, to wear their skins. Without that connection, something essential of the nature of their struggle is lost. Swathes of the narrative that should have been helping us to get more invested in the characters and their situations suddenly whittle down to a sea of thinly disguised social comment, which can get exhausting after a point. This distance between the narrator and the characters is a blow to the story – more the pity because it was a story that needed to be told.
The detachment is amplified by the narrative technique: written as a self-help book, the story is recounted by an omnipotent voice that knows what the protagonist (“you”) is doing and also knows what is passing through the heads of other characters. The voice is unique and interesting – a little like God, or an arrogant specialist who’ll tell you what to do but won’t actually help you do it. Take this portion as an example: “Many skills, as every successful entrepreneur knows, cannot be taught in school. They require doing. Sometimes a lifetime of doing. And where money-making is concerned, nothing compresses the time frame needed to leap from my-shit-just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence like an apprenticeship with someone who already has the angles all figured out.”
The voice is interesting because it does not care. Hamid has intentionally crafted it to sound superior. But in a story like this one, this creates a moral quandary. It would have eased the tension significantly had Hamid used the voice creatively or introduced some element of change in it as the narrative progressed. Instead, it appears throughout the book to give the advice required of a self-help book format and to give detailed exposition on what constitutes “Rising Asia”.
To the local reader, this voice starts sounding suspiciously self-conscious after a while. The detached bravado of the commentary simply does not ring true, breaking the spell. If Hamid was narrating the tale in person and “you” happened to be sitting in the room, “you” might half expect him to grin and wink at you from time to time.
In fact, by the time the book ends, it is not clear why it was styled as a self-help book at all, other than to do something different. Throughout his career as a writer, Hamid has shown a propensity to take his time and play with the structure of his novels. This is not a bad thing in itself, and if this is how he has fun with what he does, all power to him. But the technique cannot outdo the story, which in the case of Hamid’s latest novel, it seems to have done. The characters are there, racing through their lives from one page to the next, while the camera is on the celebrity narrator sitting in the stands. What takes the book through to the finish line ultimately is that the narration, when seen purely on its stylistic merits, is thoroughly enjoyable. This novel will most likely be remembered for the strength of its prose, which Hamid has evidently spent time on. The sentences are multi-layered, the vocabulary rich and the wit sharp. The author throws metaphors around uninhibitedly, which surprisingly does not take away from the prose (in fact, it adds substantially to the scaly, darkly humourous personality of the God-voice). You continue to turn the pages not so much to find out what happened next to “you” but to see how it has been described.
“Self-help books are two-way streets, after all. Relationships. So be honest here, and ask yourself the following question. Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?”
As his own books go, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a step forward for Hamid and it leaves the expectation that much more is yet to follow from him. In the future, perhaps a return to the basics is in order. When Hamid’s next novel ambles over the horizon, it will be interesting to see if there is a shift of focus from style to storytelling. From this reader’s perspective at least, that ought to be the spawning pond to which Hamid’s inner salmon should aspire.