Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad
We start with an unnamed protagonist huddled and shivering under his mother’s cot in a village, his sheer survival debatable right now. He watches as his mother attempts to coerce his father into moving the entire family to the city where he works as a cook. This boy, his parents and his siblings are not special. They are like millions of others across Pakistan — or whichever part of Asia you want to believe this is — but this nameless boy lying at an “erect-worm’s-height perspective” in a village that could be anywhere has been marked out somehow by Mohsin Hamid. He is the person who Hamid’s new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, will attempt to help, because this novel is a self-help book dedicated to teaching him how to rise from that grub’s height to that which he so aspires to. Of course, sometimes having everything you aspired to isn’t enough to make you happy.
Here’s what you need to know right away — Hamid’s new novel is written entirely in the second person, much in the same way some self-help books are, and the way the classic Choose Your Own Adventure books were. But Hamid has very much chosen this adventure for you — and for his protagonist. This is a very dangerous, very tricky perspective to write from. Junot Diaz has employed it successfully, as has Jay McInerney, but many experienced writers have failed at it, getting carried away, caught up to the point of self-indulgence. Fortunately, Hamid does not lose sense of where he’s headed.
Compared to everything from a wry 12-step programme to a role-playing game Tolstoy may have written, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia has been hugely lauded in the United States. While the life story of the nameless young boy may not be as exotic to local readers as it appears to be to the West, it is nevertheless entirely endearing. Though none of Hamid’s characters have names or real defining features — not the protagonist, not his only true love, “the pretty girl”, not his parents, colleagues, wife or son — they are still all somehow very present in the story.
Perhaps it is the successful use of the second-person perspective that draws the reader beyond the fourth wall so well, and settles her so firmly into the world of the story. Of course, it could also be Hamid’s swift narrative and sure prose — something that has existed in each of his books, though they have all been vastly different from each other in every way.
In following the boy from village to city, Hamid comfortably plays with the disparity between the very poor and the very rich — but many South Asian writers do that. What stands out here is the gradual climb the boy makes for upward mobility, starting as a teenager delivering pirated DVDs on a bicycle, moving on as a young man to relabelling and selling expired canned food and setting up a water refilling system where he passes off boiled tap water for the more expensive, luxury mineral water. This young man in his too-tight jeans is not let into a fancy hotel without suspicion today, but soon he’ll have worked hard enough and greased enough palms; he will “Befriend a Bureaucrat”, “Patronise the Artists of War” (as the book’s chapter titles inform us), and will have worked his way up to being driven into fancy hotels accompanied by a guard and driver, the head of his own bottling plants. Sadly, he will then also “Dance with Debt” and his world will come crashing down in a wonderfully cyclic conclusion. Because ultimately, a self-help book can get you what you want, but it doesn’t promise happiness.
Though the young man marries and fathers a child with the perfect but wrong woman, “the pretty girl” never leaves his mind, she who is “the object of much desire, anguish, and masturbatory activity”. And she seems for her part to have some mild degree of interest in him too, but her ambitions are greater and her rise up the social ladder is faster as she sells the only commodity she has — her youth and her beauty — to leave behind a job in a salon and become a model, a TV show host and eventually the owner of her own business. The young man’s rise is not parallel to hers by any means, yet she sees him as a link to her past, with a “whiff of home” about him. Eventually, it is their desire for home and familiarity that brings them together, as much as their desire for the other’s companionship.
Luckily, Hamid hasn’t headed back into post-9/11 novel territory with How to Get Filthy Rich, having instead maintained a subtle commentary on the changed world. “No self-help book can be complete without taking into account our relationship with the state,” he writes. “States tug at us. States bend us. And, tirelessly, states seek to determine our orbits.” At one point, a drone watches a crowd gathering at a graveyard, watches as the protagonist shoulders a coffin at a funeral: “The drone circles a few times, its high-powered eye unblinking, and flies observantly on.”
For those who think an entire book in the second-person perspective may be tedious, rest assured, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not. It’s incredibly easy to read and is an oddly appealing, charming book. It’s as if in taking this massive risk with how to tell this story, Hamid has found the perfect pitch for his voice.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
By Mohsin Hamid
Penguin Books, India
Follow us on Twitter @books_dawn