Reviewed by Heller McAlpin for Barnes & Noble Review
One of the reasons we read is to escape the cabin fever of our own little worlds. But just as some of us are more adventurous travelers than others, some are more adventurous readers. "I'm tired of reading books about people I might run into at Whole Foods," a friend complained, while another groused with startling insularity about having to absorb a cultural history lesson with each new far-flung book.
My recommendation for book groups this month is Mohsin Hamid's wry third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and it might just satisfy both reluctant and bold literary explorers. It is at once accessible and exotic, and most definitely filthy rich in fresh material for literary discussion. Hamid, born in 1971, was reared in both America and Pakistan and educated at Princeton and Harvard Law. He currently lives in Lahore yet writes in English, and has described himself as "geographically transgendered." Straddling multiple cultures has enabled him to speak to a wider, more diverse audience.
There's a line in Hamid's cunning first novel, "Moth Smoke," (first published in 2000 and recently reissued in paperback), that captures his ironic treatment of dishonesty and the rampant corruption in his native Pakistan: " 'I never lie,' I lied." It's spoken by his main character, a banker in Lahore, to his best friend's wife, with whom he soon falls into an obsessive affair, part of a downward spiral that includes losing his job and sliding into debauchery and drug dealing.
Even at their most roguish, Hamid's characters can be charming – or at least sympathetic, if not actually admirable. His second novel, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," concerns a young Pakistani graduate of Princeton thriving in corporate New York until September 11th upends his world. By applying a disarmingly light touch to his exploration of serious issues about class, power, violence, decadence, and religious fundamentalism, Hamid has become an appealing voice of contemporary Pakistan.
In "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia," Hamid's unnamed protagonist does what he has to do to get ahead in an unnamed, rapidly developing city much like Lahore. This involves on-the-job sales training – first, hawking bootlegged DVDs, then groceries past their prime with false new expiration dates, and finally water he boils himself and seals in used bottles collected from restaurants. As his business slaking a growing city's thirst grows, so does the magnitude of his graft: there are more people to pay off, including contractors, inspectors, tax men, bankers, and bureaucrats. And, with wealth comes the need for protection – alarms, barbed wire enclosures, and round-the-clock armed guards.
All of this is spelled out with matter-of-fact assurance in the form of a pseudo-self-help book. You want to get rich in rising Asia? This is what it takes. The first person "writer" of this purported manual addresses one of his readers – the unnamed water executive – in the tricky second person, "you," following him over a span of seven decades. He first zeroes in on him as a boy in his dirt-poor village, "huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother's cot" suffering from hepatitis E, whose "typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum."
Over the course of twelve chapters – wryly echoing twelve-step programs – the book spells out what "you" must do to advance: Move to the City; Get an Education (however inadequate); Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Dance with Debt; Have an Exit Plan. Despite the injunction not to get entangled in love, the protagonist falls as a teen into a lifelong obsession with an elusive "pretty girl" from his neighborhood, a young woman as determined to move up in the world as he is. His infatuation, alas, is unrelieved by his arranged marriage to a lovely, much younger woman, who after completing her law degree, gives him a much-loved son but lives an increasingly separate life.
The narrator's ironically instructive, deadpan voice calls to mind Daniel Orozco's tour-de-force title short story from the collection "Orientation," a monologue in which an office worker shows a new employee the ropes with bizarre, inane instructions: "This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it." Less loftily, Hamid's narrator's halfhearted apologies – "This book, I must now concede, may not have been the very best of guides to getting filthy rich in rising Asia" – also evoke the funny, tenacious optimism of the young Indian hotel manager in the recent movie "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," who keeps reassuring his alarmed residents, "Everything will be alright in the end. If it's not alright, it's not the end."
Some readers may be tempted to rush past the arch, occasionally tiresome recursive reflections on the self-help genre that open each chapter. But there's plenty to discuss in Hamid's attempt – not altogether successful – to lend a playful but deeper metafictional level to his novel. "Look," his narrator starts, "unless you're writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron." How's that? Well, it's because "You read a self-help book so someone who isn't yourself can help you, that someone being the author." Further, "Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project." Huh? "It's in being read that a book becomes a book.... Readers don't work for writers. They work for themselves." From there, it's just a short leap to the conclusion that to become rich in rising Asia, you also need to work for yourself – but remember that "time is the stuff of which a self is made."
The thwarted love story that flickers through the novel is more engaging, humanizing the protagonist and providing a sweetly sentimental counterbalance to the book's sobering trajectory, which encompasses "the reality that with age things are snatched from a man, often suddenly and without warning." The consummately practical pretty girl's pursuit of a modeling career – followed by acting, a television cooking show, and a high-end home furnishings boutique – requires strategic liaisons, which means that although she initiates sex with her old friend on several occasions when their paths cross over the years, she won't allow herself to be held back by something as elemental as love. Yes, "the pursuit of love and the pursuit of wealth have much in common," the taskmaster penning Hamid's narrative admits, including "the potential to inspire, motivate, uplift, and kill." But, he insists – just one of many dubious points – that love is a distraction to be avoided.
Hamid's water-industrialist's enduring attachment to this ever-changing "pretty girl" recalls Mario Vargas Llosa's wonderful novel "The Bad Girl," which details the difficult, eponymous "mala niña's" damaging lifelong hold on his narrator. Vargas Llosa's tale of frustrated love, underpinned by decades of social turmoil, revolutions, and the recurrent heartbreak of failed democracy in his native Peru, becomes a sort of extended allegory for an undauntable desire not just for love, but for freedom.
Hamid's engaging saga of the vicissitudes of life set against a backdrop of corruption and increased violence ultimately takes a more personal, less political turn. Even though his mock how-to spells out a path toward triumphing over poverty, the underlying irony is the hollowness of such success. Beneath its insouciant tone, "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" offers a surprisingly heartfelt conclusion: In the end, what really matters is not the business connections you make in this world but the deeper, loving relationships that demonstrate "the capacity for empathy" and going "beyond yourself." Which surely is a universal message, relevant to even the most hesitant armchair traveler.