Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid came to international attention with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Reluctant was a timely book, dealing with issues of radicalisation and globalisation, but what really made it stand out was Hamid’s unusual stylistic choice – the entire book was written in the second person, the reader taking the place of an unnamed American sitting in a cafe with the narrator.

The use of the second person in Reluctant led to a few clumsy moments where the narrator had to say things that normally would be covered by descriptive text, but most of the time Hamid pulled it off and the result was a clever and engaging novel which read like a thriller but which glittered with intelligence and insight. One point I picked out specifically in my 2009 review was that you had to simply accept the narrative device; embrace its artificiality. If you could do that the novel worked. If you couldn’t every page would have another irritation.

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (my favourite book title in quite a while) is another second person novel. This time the conceit is that it’s a self-help book, but a peculiarly specific one. It’s divided into twelve chapters titled things like Move to the City; Get an Education; Focus on the Fundamentals (a little shout-back to Reluctant there); Have an Exit Strategy. It works better than it sounds.

Hamid-How-to-Get-Filthy-Rich

The you of the book starts out as a young village boy from a poor family, and each chapter follows a key moment or decision in the boy’s life leading right up to his eventual death. Hamid uses this structure to follow a particular character’s (rags-to-riches) story while at the same time exploring the social and economic context in which it takes place.

There are no names here, characters are described by role or relationship to “you”: your brother; the pretty girl; the bureaucrat; your deputy. These generic descriptions lend a sense of universality to the story, or potential universality anyway, but at the same time the actual characters under the bland labels are sharply drawn and credible. The pretty girl, one of the most important characters in the book, is fully realised to an extent you’d never expect given that’s the only title she’s ever given. Here’s the opening paragraph:

LOOK, UNLESS YOU’RE WRITING ONE, A SELF-HELP book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

This being Hamid pointed social commentary is rarely far away. Quoting again from the first chapter:

The people of your village relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place in turn downstream of where they drink. Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same. Farther still, where the water emerges from the hills as a sometimes-gushing brook, it is partly employed in the industrial processes of an old, rusting, and subscale textile plant, and partly used as drainage for the fart-smelling gray effluent that results.

“Your” father is a cook, working for long periods away from home in the city; your mother is a strong and independent woman but uneducated, dependent on her husband’s income, and under the notional authority of her mother-in-law. They’re responsible parents, caring and keen to help their children find their places in the world. You all live together in a single room, the children pretending not to notice when their parents have sex.

Your brother becomes an apprentice to a spray painter, breathing in paint fumes in an unventilated room. It’s a good job, with a salary even as an apprentice and prospects for having his own business one day. Your sister is taken out of school early and married off to a man ten years her senior that she barely knows. “You” are the lucky one, with your brother’s wages coming in your parents can afford to keep you in school.

Chapter one tells how “your” parents decide to move to the city, giving you access to a world of economic opportunity you would never see back in the village. You become part of the great story of Asian development, mass urbanisation. Chapter two shows what passes for your education, your school class taught by a barely educated and hostile teacher who had wanted to be an electricity meter reader as it offered better chances for bribes. Even so, education remains essential, its benefits neatly underlined by a scene where the family watch TV together. To the illiterate mother the credits are “a meaningless stream of hieroglyphs”; your father and sister can make out “an occasional number”; your brother “that and the occasional word”. “You” however can actually read it, and understand that the text tells you who did what on the programme.

The story continues, with Hamid using his entrepreneur’s progress to explore life in a city that is clearly Lahore but which is never named, as what happens there happens just as much in many other Asian metropolises. Even without a name though the city breathes and convinces; the heat and traffic; the bicycles for the poor and chauffeured limos for the rich; the intertwined politicians and businessmen; the high–end hotels and one-room apartments; the power-outages so regular they happen to a schedule.

The protagonist starts out selling pirated DVDs; moves to distributing expired food with forged sell-by-dates; finally he gets into the counterfeit bottled water business, and from that into water purification, crawling his way slowly up from a backroom operation to prestigious government contracts and a gated mansion. The key to wealth, true in rising Asia as it is in the risen West, is to work for yourself and to have others work for you, leveraging your labour by using theirs.

In rising Asia however business nous alone is not enough. Corruption pervades every aspect of life; the protagonist’s early success depends on his drive and intelligence but it depends too on his membership of a politico-religious faction that might as well be an organised crime syndicate. Later, the bought friendship of bureaucrats, politicians and the military becomes equally essential; outsiders need the patronage of incumbents to get ahead, so co-opting precisely those who otherwise might have fought for a better system.

For real money though, to make serious wealth, for that you need access to the deepest pockets of all:

Entrepeneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success. No, harnessing the state’s might for personal gain is a much more sensible approach. Two related categories of actor have long understood this. Bureaucrats, who wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests. And bankers, who wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state. You will need the help of both. But in rising Asia, where bureaucrats lead, bankers tend to follow, and so it is on befriending the right bureaucrat that your continued success critically depends.

How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is written with a wry intelligence. Hamid knows his economics, micro and macro, and the hypocrisies inherent in our current economic setup. His goal here though isn’t some tub-thumping exposé of our own complicity in the often-appalling environment he portrays, this isn’t reportage. Instead, Hamid uses a single story to illustrate a world of possible stories, one fictional life to illuminate a society.

All that and Hamid includes a love story too, of sorts, with the protagonist falling in love at an early age with the pretty girl, named after his first impression of her but distinguished more by her intelligence and ambition than her looks, which are just an advantage she can exploit. In many ways she’s his counterpart, born smarter than her peers and driven to something beyond the village she grew up in. Their lives parallel, soon diverging as she heads off to become a model and then an actress, but reconnecting from time to time over the years as each of them tries to get as far and high as they can, to never return to the poverty of means and aspiration they were born into.

The second person conceit works better here than in Reluctant. The self-help element allows Hamid to make astute observations and cynical asides from outside the protagonist’s own experience (don’t fall in love if you want to be truly rich, it’ll distract you from doing whatever it takes to amass as much capital as you can). That distance lends a perspective that was harder to achieve in Reluctant, and more opportunity for humour. It allows Hamid to explore some fairly bleak elements of Pakistani society without the book becoming ugly in the process.

The knack for description I mentioned in my review of Reluctant continues here. A passage near the end describing the experience of being hooked up to life-support machines was impressive in its persuasive immediacy, but also underlined a key message showing how all of us (even self-made men) are part of a complex web of social connections. Hamid understands that nobody exists without context, that Randian supermen are fantasy, and that however much we may shape our own destinies we do so within the pages of books written by other people. As he says at one point, “We are all refugees from our childhoods.”

I’ll end as I often do with a final quote. I chose this one because it illustrates for me why Hamid is a 21st Century author. In one sense of course any writer writing today is a 21st Century author, factually that’s simply what they are. In another though most aren’t, because most aren’t writing about the world I inhabit but about a world which might be mine but could just as easily be the 1990s or 1950s or even the 1880s albeit with televisions on in the background.

As I write this I’m reading Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster. In the literal sense Tóibín is of course a contemporary author; Nora Webster came out in late 2014. In another sense though Tóibín is a profoundly 19th Century author, his style and approach to fiction sitting well alongside Henry James (on whom he has of course written so much). Brooklyn and Nora Webster both take place in the 1950s, as did his first novel The South. Tóibín isn’t interested in exploring the specificity of modernity, of contemporary experience, but rather in exploring themes of wider resonance.

I love Tóibín’s work. I think he’s a superb writer, an absolute craftsman and a master at portraying quiet moments that echo through a life. I hope he writes many more books for many years to come. I plan to read them when he does. We need too though writers who write about today, and about the world not as it always is but how it currently is. It’s a point I’ll come back to when I write up Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.

Anyway, after all that buildup this small quote is bound to be anticlimactic. So it goes. Here it is:

Near the pharmacy is a coffee shop, evidently part of a chain, and possessed of a franchise’s artificial quirkiness, its seemingly mismatched sofas and chairs and tables corresponding to a precise and determined scheme set forth in the experience section of a corporate brand guidelines binder. Its furniture and fittings evoke decades gone by. Its music, its menu, and, saliently, its prices are utterly contemporary.

I’m not aware of any of the blogs I follow having reviewed this, but if you know of any other blogger reviews please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments. I will point though to what I thought was a truly excellent review in The Telegraph, which is here. Also, this book gave rise to my very favourite one star review on Amazon, titled “Disliked narrative from outset.,” which is here.

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19 Comments

Filed under Hamid, Mohsin

19 responses to “Moving to the city is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia

  1. I need to check this out. I’d been thinking about the previous book as well, so thanks for the reminder 🙂

  2. I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist too, a very gripping story. Hamid’s use of the second person gave it a very intimate feel, but I can see how the tone differs here (the quotes you’ve chosen give a good sense of the style). I really like what you say about Hamid’s focus on one fictional life to illuminate society – that’s exactly what appeals to me about this. An excellent review as ever, Max.

  3. liwella, thanks, let me know what you think if you do check it out.

    Jacqui, thanks. I think it’s ultimately more successful than Reluctant (which I liked a lot), partly for being a little less obvious (Changez, really?). Of course one would hope for that, it’s his third novel rather than his second.

    I do think he’s in many ways a more daring author than he gets credit for, both in terms of subject matter and style.

  4. leroyhunter

    It sounds clever, insightful, depressing and worth a look. Thanks Max. Reluctant Fundamentalist kind of passed me by without grabbing my interest – rightly or wrongly, it sounded too sub-Greene for my tastes. Am piqued by this, although I note that at least 50% of the conditions that lead to that 1-star review also apply to me.

  5. They apply to me too, but really it’s a poor sort of reader who needs the protagonist of a book to be just like them. Hamid clearly doesn’t expect his readers to actually be like the character in the book, you couldn’t be given he starts as a young child and ends as an old man.

    As I said to Jacqui, it’s better than Fundamentalist (which I liked). I plan to read his first, Moth Smoke, at some point though I imagine it’ll be weaker since it was his first novel.

    Love Greene. Underappreciated these days I think.

  6. Yes, under-appreciated for sure, and yet probably too well-known and secure to ever merit a noisy, exciting “re-discovery”. Greene’s range is quite incredible. I wonder would we tolerate such variety from a successful author today.

  7. Well, I think Jim Crace shows that range is not particularly rewarded. I suspect that he would have more success if he wrote on fewer subjects. Not that Crace and Greene are similar authors, but he seemed to go to your point.

    Greene has passed into that body of authors so well but vaguely known that people feel they have read them even when they haven’t.

  8. Max, I forgot to mention that I’ve read Moth Smoke. It’s good, a promising debut with a strong sense of place. Not perfect but it gives a feel for Hamid’s potential as a writer. As far as I can recall there are some similarities between Moth and Filthy Rich: the picture of society in Lahore; the contrast between the elite rich and poor; the routes to success. This new one, however, sounds much more ambitious and accomplished.

  9. leroyhunter

    Max, yes, Crace is a good example. From what I know of him, Rupert Thomson seems to be another. Interestingly I see John Self and others are discussing Greene on Twitter this morning.

    Anyway, I have put this one on the wish list and look forward to trying it.

  10. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    I read ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ a couple of years ago and enjoyed it – after the first page I just feel in with the style and ignored the clunky passages – and I’ve had ‘How to Get Filthy Rich’ on my shelves pretty much since then. I read Arundhati Roy’s short collection of essays ‘Captilism’ recently, and I suspect this would dovetail quite nicely with that from your review. I’m interested to see how he makes the larger issues personal here as I did feel this was slightly clunky at times in TRF. Thanks for reminding me that I need to dig this out!

  11. Jacqui, good to hear. I figured it wouldn’t be as strong given it’s his first novel, but it sounds better than I was hoping.

    Leroy, I can see that with Thomson. I never connected with him but he has I think suffered from a lack of categorisability.

    Matthew, I think either you embrace the style or there’s just no hope with the book. If by page 5 it’s a problem it won’t get better. If you read and review this please do link back so I can follow up and read your take, or otherwise just let me know what you think. It doesn’t seem to have had the attention from the blogosphere that one might expect.

  12. Another blog post w/o notification…

    I had considered this book some months back after reading about it (on Kevin’s blog?), but I didn’t buy it. After reading the quotes, I’m not sure that I’d like the style after all. So saved from a purchase.

  13. Perhaps I’ve been somehow spamfiltered? I’ve found I’ve occasionally spamfiltered people by accident and sometimes it happens without my doing anything, presumably as the algorithms have changed.

    Otherwise maybe try resubscribing?

    Anyway, glad I could put you off a book. As I tend to say, there’s no greater favour one blogger can do another. I do think quotes are critical to this one, if the style doesn’t connect then the whole book would be just painful.

  14. Matthew (Bibliofreak.net)

    No, I haven’t seen much about it – in fact, I only came across it in a bookshop while reading TRF, and it was pure coincidence I picked it up. I am surprised, particularly after the success of TRF, that there hasn’t been more written about it, but perhaps it’s just not one of the ‘buzz’ topics that instantly demand a slew of press. Will definitely pop back if I write a review – I did for TRF and found it useful in engaging with the book (old news, hence no link).

  15. It seems an interesting book and I like the idea of addressing to the reader with a “you”.
    All these self-help books depress me…

    I agree with you about enjoying writers who are rooted in our world. I’ve heard a discussion about that between Djian and Despentes this weekend and they both aim at decoding our society. (Virginie Despentes seems to be a writer worth exploring)

  16. Yes, I rather strongly dislike the self-help genre. It seems to be mostly about preying on people’s weaknesses. It works well as a device here.

    Despentes rings a bell, have you reviewed her? Looking online I recognise the films, but I don’t know the books.

  17. I wrote a billet about Apocalypse bébé by Virginie Despentes. I just git her Teen Spirit and I’m interested in her last one, Vernon Subutex.

  18. That’s it. I have that one in my Amazon wishlist where I keep track of books I want to get, but not just yet. Your review will be why it’s there.

  19. Pingback: Reflections on a reading year | Pechorin's Journal

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