Early into “Five Star Billionaire,” Tash Aw’s patiently told and elaborately mapped round robin of a novel, a character recollects a family holiday in Sapporo, Japan, during his early teens. Chief among the trip’s highlights was the Snow Festival, one of those perverse annual rites common to many a northern burg, wherein iconic foreign sites such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Mount Rushmore, and Egyptian pyramids are fastidiously carved from nondescript humps of snow.
The author couldn’t have chosen a more cogent metaphor for the counterfeit personas and chilly hearts exhibited by his single-minded protagonists, who have all come to Shanghai to claim their piece of the new China’s skyrocketing wealth. And the deceits they commit in service of their ambitions are as cheap and abundant as the instant noodles they all seem to consume by the shovelful.
If two books can signal a literary trend, then “Five Star Billionaire” and Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” represent a simmering subgenre of fiction that apes or otherwise incorporates the vocabulary of self-help books to satirize neo-capitalist mores in the East. Tash’s title and chapter headings reference “How to Become a Five-Star Billionaire,” the autobiographical maunderings of one Walter Chao, a real estate tycoon of humble Malaysian origin who is never too busy or avaricious to bang out (under a made-up name) another wildly best-selling guide for suckers on the make.
Chao’s pseudonymic disguise typifies the dissembling strategies of Tash’s rotating quintet of main characters, each of whom are but one or two degrees separated from one another. Among the most literal-minded, not to say driven, of the billionaire writer’s fan base is Phoebe, a hapless young factory worker from the hinterlands who appropriates a stranger’s lost ID card to land herself a receptionist gig in a cushy beauty spa.
Taking her cues from Chao’s ruthless how-tos, Phoebe embroiders her job description, along with her economic status, to win favor with a wealthy real estate magnate she locates on an Internet chat line (and who, unbeknownst to her, is also her self-help-book Svengali). While Phoebe soaks Chao for expensive dinners and clothing, her boss at the spa, Yinghui, a rising female entrepreneur with dreams of joining the ranks of Shanghai’s power brokers, negotiates a major land-development deal with a wealthy businessman who may or may not be attracted to her and who also, wouldn’t you know it, just happens to be Chao.
The fortunes of this calculating threesome crisscross and collide with those of two successful but disaffected men: Justin, a 40-ish businessman who sacrifices soul and sanity in the name of expanding his billionaire family’s ill-gotten holdings, and Tash’s most vividly inhabited character, Gary, a pop superstar with anger management issues who crashes and burns amid the rat race of staying on top. As he tries to regroup, Gary’s only comfort is an Internet friendship with that indefatigable minx of the chat lines, Phoebe.
Tash’s ever-spiraling web of connections is as improbable as it is entertaining, but he knits his various threads with an elegance that, coupled with a photorealistic eye for the minutiae of urban life, can distract us from the holes that accumulate over his attenuated narrative. Most of these have to do with the ambiguous relationship between Chao and Phoebe. What does he want from her? Sex? Apparently not. Companionship? He could do better. A partner in crime? When it comes to deception, in the world according to Tash, two’s a crowd.
And while each of his prevaricating quintet is up to something, only one of them has the stuff to bamboozle the reader.