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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Mohsin Hamid's wry novel is accessible as well as exotic.

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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.

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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."

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