Mohsin Hamid’s last novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was a beautifully written and sharply observed narrative of East-West tension. Deservedly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it cut right to the quick of Western distrust and ignorance of the Muslim world. It was also a great thriller.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a quirkily innovative and vitriolic satire, full of sardonic humour and brilliant insight. Masquerading as a self-help manual, it also reflects on fiction and its role in our lives.
As Hamid makes clear at the start, “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.” In the course of helping you, he, of course, helps himself – to royalties, speaking appearances and so forth.
Hamid’s brilliant innovation is to write entirely in the second person – a commonplace in the self-help category, but extremely rare in fiction. “You” is both us and Hamid’s protagonist. We are all at the heart of the conspiracy, as is our guide and mentor, the author. We are all implicated in this tale of corruption, nepotism, deception and violence, even as innocent bystanders.
In 12 simple lessons, each constructed around a stage in your/his protagonist’s rise and fall, Hamid explains and illustrates the opportunities and perils of being an Asian entrepreneur. He starts with your beginnings as a simple farm boy. Clearly, the farm is not where the gold is, so you move quickly to the city. This city is a sprawling, chaotic, polluted sink of humanity, but it is alive with opportunity. So you get an “education”, of sorts, in a parody of a post-colonial institution, where “penetration and education” are synonyms. The result is virtual illiteracy – which is not a barrier to a tertiary qualification. Gang affiliation also helps.
You have an eye for a chance, so start with a humble DVD delivery round, which presents multiple possibilities. Dodgy deals escalate until you find yourself at the top of the heap. But Hamid does not leave you dangling at the acme of your success. He shows how the descent can be just as dramatic, a “race between death and destitution”.
And of all those riches, what is left? After separation, estrangement and isolation, not a lot. Hamid strips away the moral veneer and exposes the hollow nature of worldly success. The commercial transaction pollutes all your life: love, sex, family, lifestyle, politics, society – all are irreparably tainted.
Steve Walker is head of English at King’s College, Auckland.
To join the Listener Book Club conversation about Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (Hamish Hamilton, $37), click on the Book Club section (which is free to non-subscribers), follow @nzlbookclub on Twitter or go to our Facebook page, New Zealand Listener Book Club. Next month’s book choice is Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, $36.99).