In the classic rags-to-riches narrative, a boy born into poverty attains respectability by dint of hard work, clean living and moral courage. Mohsin Hamid’s third novel — his eagerly awaited follow-up to The Reluctant Fundamentalist — updates the genre for the 21st century, transplanting it to ‘rising Asia’ but stripping it of all sense of uplift.
We first encounter Hamid’s unnamed protagonist in his filthy village compound, ‘huddled, shivering on the packed earth’, wracked by hepatitis E. His father, a cook with a ‘voracious sexual appetite’, soon moves the family to the city (‘the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia’), where our hero lives in equally squalid conditions but does acquire the vital ‘second step’ of an education.
Things move along rapidly — though this is a short novel, there are 70-odd years to pack in — and in no time the protagonist enters adolescence. Working as a DVD delivery boy, he becomes infatuated with a ‘pretty girl’ from his neighbourhood, who relieves him of his virginity and then promptly vanishes. He goes to university, briefly falls under the sway of left-wing idealists, loses his mother to cancer and becomes a salesman for a firm that retouches the labels on out-of-date foods.
Next our hero enters the drinks trade, boiling up tap water in a makeshift workshop and flogging the resulting ‘mineral water’ to the emergent middle classes. This operation eventually nets him a fortune. He acquires a wife (who divorces him) and squires a son (who dashes off to America at the first opportunity). All the while, he pines for the ‘pretty girl’ of his youth, who, we learn, follows her own solitary route to self-made affluence — if not happiness — by becoming a model and TV celebrity.
Hamid adds extra satirical bite to this tale by presenting it in the guise of an inspirational ‘how to’ guide, of the sort that has become popular in subcontinental Asia. Chapters are couched as lessons (‘Learn from a Master’, ‘Don’t be Afraid to Use Violence’) and open with passages of awkward rumination before moving on to specific episodes from the protagonist’s life.
All this, of course, is intended ironically. By reducing his hero’s life to a series of trite precepts, Hamid is suggesting that, on the contrary, human experience is too complex to conform to the blandishments of self-help, and that anyone who sets out with the goal of becoming ‘filthy rich’ is bound to end up unfulfilled and unhappy (as, indeed, is true of his protagonist). The novel, in this regard, is an ingenious act of literary ju jitsu, deploying the apparatus of self-help to launch an assault on the very concept.
Yet the danger of framing a novel in this way is that it may be constricted by the limitations of the genres it seeks to expose. And the truth is that How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, while effective as satire, works less well on the human level. The basic problem is that the generalising tendencies of self-help (a genre whose goal is to suggest that we are basically all the same) rubs up against literature’s need for specificity. None of the characters is named, and Hamid often seems at pains to present them as archetypes: the protagonist’s love interest, for example, remains the ‘pretty girl’ even in old age.
Countries and cities are unidentified. The narrative voice is in the second person, which has the effect of further deindividuating the protagonist, making it seem as if he could be anyone. (‘You’, when used for any purpose other than one-to-one communication, is a strangely slippery word.) All this gives the novel the feel more of an exercise than of a fully realised imaginative work. While individual pages crackle with wit and intelligence, the overall story proves frustratingly inert.
It would be naive to think that Hamid wasn’t aware of these problems; one half-suspects him, in fact, of saddling himself with them deliberately, for the sheer fun of trying to resolve them. And it’s testament to his resourcefulness that the novel has as much going for it as it has. But all the same, I felt stinted by the end: seeing as I’m unlikely to seek my fortune in rising Asia any time soon, it would have been nice, at least, to have been moved by what I read.