‘You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you,” affirms the narrator of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, a darkly comic tale masquerading as a self-help guide.
Hamid is the author of two previous novels. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” his second, was seamlessly structured into a single conversation between a young Pakistani man and an American traveler in the wake of 9/11. Hamid is as much an inventive stylist as he is a gifted storyteller, and he’s very interested in playing with the novel’s form, or rather, renewing it, without sacrificing too many narrative essentials. As a result, his novels are compulsively readable, and “Rising Asia” is no exception.
Written in a fast-paced, second-person narration á la Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” we track our nameless hero, known simply as “you,” through his journey from poor rural boy to successful tycoon of a bottled-water empire. Similarly, “Filthy Rich’’ ends up being both a personal saga of love and ambition and a pointed satiric commentary on the head-turning changes in parts of the developing world.
The city of “Rising Asia” remains nameless, but through the lens of Hamid’s critical eye, we understand it to be a metropolis closely resembling Lahore, Pakistan. Drones fly overhead. Corruption, terrorism, and violence are everyday occurrences.
We first meet our hero as a child, “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under [his] mother’s cot one cold dewy morning.” He’s sickly, infected with hepatitis E, living with his family of five in a cramped, one-room shanty. There’s nothing desirable about village life. Sex between his parents is a ritual undertaken entirely clothed and right next to the children pretending to be asleep.
But better things lie ahead once the family migrates to the city, a place where “[w]ealthy neighborhoods are often divided by a single boulevard from factories and markets and graveyards . . . separated from the homes of the impoverished only by an open sewer, railroad track, or narrow alley.” It’s the bleak disparity between the rich and the poor that our hero is determined to cross in order to get filthy rich in rising Asia.
Lest we forget, we’re still in the land of self-help, and in proper prescriptive fashion, each chapter homes in on a goal to improving one’s station (“Get an Education,” “Befriend a Bureaucrat,” “Dance with Debt”) and each is a glimpse into our protagonist’s career at a different stage of life, from childhood to old age.
He enters the workforce as a teenager, working the night shift as a delivery boy of pirated DVDs. As a result, he meets his soulmate, known only as “the pretty girl.” She works at a beauty salon but is destined for bigger things. And he’s a poor boy still wet behind the ears searching his “inner salmon” for the proper motivation. Their relationship develops into a mutual crush, and she deflowers him, but this is a love that could never be, and she finds a better mate to run off with, a marketing manager in advertising.
Love, we are told, only “dampens the fire in the steam furnace of ambition, robbing of essential propulsion an already fraught upriver journey to the heart of financial success.” Hamid’s ear for replicating infomercial mumbo-jumbo is fine-tuned, producing some hilarious moments of dramatic irony.
As the novel progresses through our narrator’s life’s work, from street salesman of “non-expired-labeled expired-goods” to his true calling, the bottled-water trade — a business so dirty that he must lie, cheat, cook his books, make bribes, and sometimes murder — it reveals a rather moving portrait of a life lived in regret and denial. He marries the wrong woman, fails as a father to his only son, and once his bottled-water business becomes an empire, he loses it, and the rise toward staggering wealth becomes a quick plummet to the bottom.
There’s an unfortunate side effect to a novel of such admirable ambition. Hamid attempts to find the universal in the non-specific. And it’s an experiment that’s not completely successful. With his intentional generality and the many nameless players— “you,” “your mother,” “your father,” “your wife,” “your brother-in-law” — Hamid has created a set of characters we begin to love but are unable to clearly see.
But it’s the lifelong affair the narrator has with the pretty girl that helps us regain our focus time and again. Their lives parallel over the course of several decades. As he rises in business, his infatuation grows, and he tracks her career as a model on billboards, then as a TV personality on his wife’s favorite cooking show, then as a small-business owner in her own right. When the two come together, Hamid allows these scenes to linger pleasantly on, and in turn, his two characters appear at their most human.
Hamid has admitted in interviews that the genesis of “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” springs from the idea that reading novels can at times feel like a form of self-help. We empathize with a novel’s characters, seek their wisdom, experience their faults, find solace in their lives. Hamid’s novel embodies this concept in a tremendously profound and entertaining way, bringing to the page, front and center, why we read fiction at all. And the answer may very well be what his novel proposes: to get someone who isn’t yourself to help you.