Reviewed: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Diamonds in the rough.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid
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.

Dubai. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.