Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2014
“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” begins under a bed. With you — yes, you — under a bed. Once you quit cowering, you’ll be the hero of this novel written in the second person, although there’s nothing remotely heroic about you at the moment; you’re so sick you can scarcely speak. The only remedy at hand is a large white radish, which your mother cooks up in a foul brew.
Courage. You’ll live and what’s more, you’re only seven steps from getting Filthy Rich, according to the narrator. (You’re also nine steps from ruin, but we’ll address that in a minute.) The marriage of these two curiously compatible genres — self-help and the old-fashioned bildungsroman — is just one of the pleasures of Mohsin Hamid’s shrewd and slippery new novel, a rags-to-riches story that works on a head-splitting number of levels. It’s a love story and a study of seismic social change. It parodies a get-rich-quick book and gestures to a new direction for the novel, all in prose so pure and purposeful it passes straight into the bloodstream. It intoxicates.
But back to the radish. It saves you — or was it perhaps something more numinous? Luck has already begun clearing your path. “There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and in your case, the order of your birth is one of these,” the narrator congratulates you. You’re a third-born son. Third born means you’re spared from going to work immediately (like your elder brother) or being married off (like your sister, who at puberty is “marked for entry”). Third born means you’re not “a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree,” like your youngest sibling. Third born means you stay in school.
Even your illness is a blessing; it persuades your father to move the family to the city — Step 1 in getting Filthy Rich — and it’s the point where the story of the individual debouches into the narrative of the nation. “You embody one of the great changes of your time,” Hamid writes. “Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans. In the history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation.”
You ascend smoothly, going from DVD rental delivery boy to young entrepreneur with a bottled water business that thrives “to the sound of the city’s great whooshing thirst,” goaded on by the narrator’s edicts (“Learn From a Master,” “Don’t Fall in Love”), which grow steadily more sinister (“Be Prepared to Use Violence”). You marry but remain besotted with a girl from the neighborhood identified as “the pretty girl,” now working as a model and making her own hazardous climb.
Like his compatriot, the Pakistani novelist Mohammed Hanif, author of “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti,” Hamid creates characters who enact the life of the nation. But where Hanif (a former fighter pilot) favors broad burlesques — a literature of parody and attack — Hamid (a former brand consultant) is politic and deeply ironic. He grew up in Pakistan and America, with stints in Milan and Manila (where our families were friends). He’s alert to the dread and distrust with which America and the Muslim world regard each other. He’s never merely telling a story, he’s pitting his story against prevailing narratives about Pakistan, the roots of radicalization, the unevenness of economic growth. Hence his penchant for directly addressing the reader — all three of his novels make extravagant use of the second person.
“I’m a political animal,” Hamid told the Book Review in an interview last year. “How the pack hunts, shares its food, tends its wounded — these things matter to me.” There’s no better description of what he strives to capture in this book. Where Virginia Woolf attends to the inner lives of her most peripheral characters, Hamid gives every extra a history of violence and a lurid financial back story; he revels in the dream deferred, the loan denied, the fingers lost to creditors. A technician helping perfect the water purification technology is conjured in a few swift strokes: “He is a bicycle mechanic by background, untrained in the nuances of business, which is why he works for you, and also because, as the father of a trio of little girls and the youngest son of a freelance bricklayer who died of exposure sleeping rough at too advanced an age, he values a steady income.” By supplanting the traditional role of choice in the novel with chance, by defining characters by their modes of survival rather than their personalities, he puts powerlessness at the center of his story. And by turning from his cast of terrestrial drones to the aerial drones silently monitoring their progress, he signals to powerlessness on a global scale.
Cleverly, Hamid sets “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” in an unnamed country, stripping away almost every signifier save a few that suggest we are in Pakistan. No mangoes, no mullahs, no preconceived notions. Defamiliarizing Pakistan also obviates another criticism. “Although globalization is universally acknowledged as one of the most pressing issues of our time, it has usually proved a poor subject for fiction,” the writer Siddhartha Deb observes. Too many books exhibit “an endless fascination for pop-culture trivia, poststructuralist meta-theories and self-referential irony.” With only a few props — an assault rifle, a packet of milk, a white radish — and only the slightest tinge of tear gas in the air, the novel feels mythic, eternal rather than frenetic. And the bare stage is the best showcase for the narrator’s one-man show.
Hamid, like Kazuo Ishiguro, specializes in voices in transition, split at the root, straining for cultivation and tripping over clumsy constructions. This narrator speaks to us in two tongues, in self-help’s slick banalities and the bewilderment of the striver. He’s magnificently fraudulent and full of uses; he swoops in to do exposition, pans away to turn prophetic or play sociologist (“You witness a passage of time that outstrips its chronological equivalent. Just as when headed into the mountains a quick shift in altitude can vault one from subtropical jungle to semi-arctic tundra, so too can a few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia”). He can be chilling and chummy, and very hard to shake. Some of the book’s more serious sections, on mortality, say, are imbued with a vestigial phoniness, and a self-referential ode to storytelling has the soul-lessness of a TED talk. It’s a shame; Hamid is a stronger, stranger writer than that.
Witness the final reversal. The book ends with you, the hero, in your eighth decade, a Gatsby we never knew: an old man in a hotel room, trying to remember to take your medicines regularly. And as it turns out, there is still something left to learn, something more vital than how to get Filthy Rich. You teach us how to lose. How to relinquish health and hope; how to surrender assets to thieving relatives and one’s children to America. “Slough off your wealth, like an animal molting in the autumn,” Hamid writes. Look up the pretty girls of your youth. Find someone to play cards with. “Have an exit strategy.”