How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

July 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

In a piece published recently on the White Review website, Cesar Aira succinctly articulated something that most of us already understood:

Thousands of novelists have continued to write Balzacian novels during the twentieth century: an unending stream of commercial fiction, fleeting, frivolous novels written for the purposes of either entertainment or ideology. To take even a single step further, as Proust did, requires a colossal effort and the sacrifice of an entire life. The law of diminishing returns comes into play: the innovator covers almost all the ground in his initial attempt, leaving his successors a space that gets smaller every day and in which it’s more and more difficult to move forward.

So what is a contemporary novelist to do? The Oulipians have long cornered the market on lipograms and other textual restriction, BS Johnson did both a book in a box and cut-out sections, and anyway, didn’t Lawrence Sterne pretty much think of every possible innovation in Tristram Shandy?

One way to innovate is by emulating or appropriating the non-fiction genre of your time. Self-help books, as no doubt everyone knows by now, were ushered in by Samuel Smiles’ imaginatively titled Self-Help in 1859, but as a genre the books define our current moment—obsession with improving ourselves in both materialistic and anti-materialistic ways is the overt and hidden subject of a great deal of non-fiction (from Thich Nhat Hanh to Mark Bittman, and from Stephen R. Covey to Malcolm Gladwell) as well as of much literary fiction about middle class people. It gives a reader a warming glow of intellectual Schadenfreude, after all, to watch someone else trying and failing to be a better person.

Mohsin Hamid’s third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia borrows the structure and language of a self-help book to tell a story that is probably atypical on an individual basis, but more applicable as a trajectory of development to countries and economies. Hamid uses the second-person singular to address the reader, parodying business how-to books in its chapter titles (Get an Education, Don’t Fall in Love, Avoid Idealists, Be Prepared to Use Violence); it is far from the first novel to be inspired by self-help books, but Hamid makes something new of it.

Filthy Rich gives us the story of one particular character’s journey from child in a poor village to entrepreneur making first a living and later great wealth from selling water. Some of the necessary steps (Move to the City) take place without his participation; others (Befriend a Bureaucrat) require time, money and energy. Putting the onus on the disenfranchised or underprivileged to “succeed” by taking the right steps in the right order is a time-honoured way of maintaining the status quo, one Hamid nicely twists as his novel progresses. Although the character in Filthy Rich does happen to realise his dreams of money and status, this success falls far short of providing personal happiness or even security. From his very first job, the character has had his heart set on the ever-elusive “pretty girl,” who also finds herself tossed and buffeted by the success she sought; their trajectories and destinies remain intertwined to the end.

The tone is brisk–encouraging yet bracing, which serves as a great backdrop to the humour and occasional moment of pathos. The downside to the self-help conceit is that very occasionally it leads the writer to rely too much on telling. But these lapses are occasional. For the most part, the voice is wry and inventive, and Hamid’s unexpected verbs and adjectives are a delight. Will this one be on the Booker longlist next week?
Review copy.
(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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