As its title brazenly proclaims, Mohsin Hamid’s third novel posits itself as a self-help book for those seeking to cash in on the phenomenon of rising Asia — the continent that makes all our stuff, supports all our tech and to which our collective global future naturally belongs.
Although the book’s chapters have broadly aphoristic titles like “Learn from a Master,” “Work for Yourself,” or “Be Prepared to Use Violence,” their substance is uncomfortably specific. To be effective, the narrator says, the book needs to find “you … huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.”
Like the guy who tells his doctor about his friend with venereal disease, we start to wonder if the hypothetical “you” to whom all this “advice” is addressed mightn’t be the narrator himself. Could this be memoir dressed in self-help book’s clothing?
The undefined Asian country “you” lives in could be a number of places, including Hamid’s native country, Pakistan. “You”’s own rise begins when his family moves from their poor, rural village to a polluted, rapidly industrializing city in whose unplanned sprawl rich and poor live cheek-by-jowl; a still caste-conscious society where upward mobility is readily achieved through bribes or sexual favours.
While his dad works as a cook in wealthy homes, “you” gets a job delivering pirated DVDs. It’s while on his rounds that he meets the lifelong object of his affections, described to us only as “the pretty girl.” In her, “you” sees a scrappy determination to succeed rivalling his own.
“You” moves from delivery boy to selling food on the black market to starting his own bottled water company — a product he procures by boiling tap water. Several of “you”’s siblings died before he came to the city, but even now his family continues to atrophy. His mother succumbs painfully to a cancer they can’t afford to treat; his sister, whom they can’t afford to educate, is sent back to the country to get married. His father’s job gives him severe angina; his brother’s an incessant chemical cough.
After the pretty girl manages to parlay her epithet into a successful modeling career, “you” sees her less and less, and often only on billboards. Despite these long lapses, the two forge a kind of friendship based on infrequent conversations interspersed with the odd sexual encounter.
“You”’s wealth grows against a backdrop of riots, teargas fumes, violence against his competitors and drones circling the sky — things he assures himself are capitalism’s growing pains. He lives in lavish comfort with a son he loves and a wife he doesn’t, until he divorces her. He’s held a torch for the pretty girl, now an elderly woman in her seventies who did well for herself despite the loss of her modeling career decades earlier. Like her’s, we’re pretty sure his rise won’t be irrevocable.
Hamid, whose last novel was the bestselling The Reluctant Fundamentalist, has proven himself a cool, surefooted, writer. Despite moments of undeniable spark, however, it strikes me that How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia never becomes quite enough of any of the things it sets out to be. As satire, it lacks causticity; as exposé it lacks shock value, as a love story, it wants chemistry. It’s a decent book that often gets at something without always getting at us.