Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)
It’s been a good few years since I read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but I can still recall the experience quite vividly. What lingers most in my memory, though, more so than any details of the plot, is the way it is told: that measured, reasonable voice telling its story to a stranger at a Lahore café. Mohsin Hamid’s new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is also framed as a text directly addressed to someone, but the roles are reversed: the teller is the anonymous figure, and the addressee is the protagonist. Hamid’s marvellous control of voice remains, however.
Hamid’s unnamed protagonist, the ‘you’ of the novel, is a boy born into poverty who, from the first, is presented as someone who wants to get on in life:
Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been taken 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. (p. 4)
He has a general desire for something that he cannot name, but it’s something beyond the life’s basic needs. He does indeed get there eventually, through hard work and no small amount of pragmatism: the boy’s background denies him access to the little privileges that would make university life smoother, so he gains power by joining a political group – and leaves again when the time is right; later, he spots a business opportunity in the shape of bottled water, and it is with this that he ultimately makes his fortune.
Pragmatism, it seems to me, is a theme running through the entire book; at various levels, we see characters doing what they need to make the best of their situation. When the boy is born, his father is at first reluctant to move the family from the village to the city, but is eventually persuaded that it’s the thing to do. A video retailer has equipment in the back for making bespoke pirate DVDs, as he finds it’s the best way to meet the demands of his customers. As more and more people take advantage of good fortune, there has emerged “a hypertrophying middle class, bulging from the otherwise scrawny body of the population like a teenager’s overdeveloped bicep” (p. 150).
There’s a certain sense of unease about that image I’ve just quoted, and it’s one of several points in Hamid’s novel to give a feeling that not all is rosy. The text is framed as being a self-help book, but its narrator is quick to point out the limitations of such books. The terms ‘filthy rich’ and ‘rising Asia’ are used so repetitively that they start to lose real meaning – suggesting, perhaps, that there’s no such thing as an easy fortune, and that maybe ‘rising Asia’ isn’t necessarily rising for everyone. And, for all that he eventually gains, there’s a sense that the boy never quite has what he truly wants.
What he wants is represented by a pretty girl he first meets as a teenager, and again at various points during their lives, when she has become a model, and afterwards (whatever her age, she is always ‘the pretty girl’ to him). It’s not (quite) that he wants her for a lover and she’s unattainable – they sleep together more than once, but that doesn’t blossom into a relationship – it’s that she symbolises a different path in life, one where he might have followed his heart rather than pursuing wealth. The tension of conflicting goals is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of his life.
Hamid’s use of the second person, and his keeping the protagonist essentially anonymous, despite taking us through the man’s life results in an interesting effect, as the character is by turns brought closer to us and pushed further away. But the prose, and the brisk pace the author sets, make the events of his protagonist’s life leap from the page. We end up with a whirlwind tour of a society, refracted through the experience of one individual. So that’s another Mohsin Hamid novel I can’t imagine forgetting.