How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £14.99
How-to books, religious texts, fiction, nonfiction: they’re all self-help, says the narrator of Mohsin Hamid’s third novel. He is quick to tell us, though, that “self-help” is a misnomer. We read because we want help from “someone who isn’t [ourselves]” – in this case, from the narrator, who will help you, the reader, to get filthy rich in rising Asia.
Hamid’s previous, Man Booker-shortlisted novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), was a spare, tense dramatic monologue, with the reader cast as an American visitor to Lahore and the narrator an American-educated Pakistani. In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, there’s the same direct address but the balance has shifted. Whereas The Reluctant Fundamentalist was the life story of its narrator, How to Get Filthy Rich is the story of the addressee. Written almost entirely in the second person, it is both sly self-help satire and the story of “you”, an unnamed boy born in an unnamed Asian country.
Hamid models the book on the business self-help guides popular across Asia. The title of each chapter is a piece of advice that will propel you along the road to riches; sometimes straightforward (“Move to the City”, “Get an Education”), more often deadpan (“Avoid Idealists”, “Befriend a Bureaucrat”). The advice that concerns your childhood and adolescence translates as: be lucky. You are lucky because your father decides on a whim to move his family from the countryside to the city. You are lucky because, as the youngest child, you stay in education while your teenage brother becomes a painter’s apprentice and your teenage sister returns to your native village to marry.
But luck is not enough. You are part of a stupendously corrupt system and you need to play it. “Filthy” describes not so much the quantity of your money as the means by which you will acquire it: selling pirated DVDs, food past its expiry date, fake bottled water. Along the way you bribe officials, fudge your accounts and pay others to kill those who threaten you. You also give generously to less fortunate relatives, care for your sick parents and take seriously your responsibilities as an employer.
In both The Reluctant Fundamentalist and his debut, Moth Smoke, Hamid focused on tensions between the middle class and the super-rich in Pakistan, spinning insider-outsider narratives that drew comparisons with F Scott Fitzgerald. How to Get Filthy Rich has a much greater reach, socio-economically and geographically. You may never be as wealthy as some of Hamid’s earlier characters but your journey is a more extreme one – a journey, as the narrator puts it, from “myshit- just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence”. And though the unnamed country in which you pass your life is recognisable as Pakistan, there are regular reminders that your city is “only one among many such organs quivering in the torso of rising Asia”.
You share your city’s lack of specificity. Your physical attributes are sketched in (you are tall, strong, attractive – another instance of your good fortune) but there’s not much that’s distinctive about your character. The self-help format demands this, since the “you” that a self-help book addresses must be applicable to as many of its readers as possible. The risk in How to Get Filthy Rich is that the reader will lose interest in this cipher of a character.
Perhaps in an attempt to prevent this, Hamid makes your strongest desires romantic rather than financial. As a teenager, you fall in love with “the pretty girl” who lives near you. As adults, your paths cross only occasionally; nevertheless, your love for her persists. But this decades-long crush makes you more generic, not less – the pretty girl is about as generic a femme fatale as can be imagined. How to Get Filthy Rich fizzes when exploring the many-threaded web of contemporary Asian society; when it comes to affairs of the heart, it’s sometimes flat.
Towards the end, the narrator loses interest in “rising Asia”. Instead, he turns to the nature of help: writing it, offering it, accepting it. As an old man, you learn to rely on others and to give help that goes beyond the financial. The pretty girl reappears and at last becomes something more than a femme fatale. You, too, become frail and real, an individual rather than a type. There is happiness in companionship; love is more important than money. This sounds like, and could be, a pedestrian conclusion. How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia turns out to be as much moral fable as it is satire. Fortunately, Hamid makes each mode as fresh as the other.