In 2009, I reviewed at length Mohsin Hamid’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where I noted that the book so captivated me that I spent a whole day reading it instead of exploring the Afro-Caribbean streets of Cartagena, Colombia where I happened to be at the time.
Last week, I read Hamid’s latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, lying next to a pool in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Once again, Hamid kept me adhered to my chair, as evidenced by the picture to the right.
It’s a rags-to-riches story of a boy who’s born in a poor village who transforms himself into a big city entrepreneur-mogul.
As a piece of writing, Hamid is masterful. His effortless use of the second person voice — rare in novels — increases the sense of urgency while reading. He can also bring characters to life with an efficient dash of a paragraph, which is how the book clocks in at a brisk 200 pages or so and yet still feels deep.
Three big picture themes especially resonated with me.
The first theme is the simple entrepreneurial hustle required in a dirty, somewhat dangerous, fast moving emerging market. The self-help structure is a parody, but effectively conveys the underlying truth which is that only relentless do-anything go-getter win in “Rising Asia.” (The namelessness of places and people – “Rising Asia” is the setting of the book, “you” the protagonist, and “Pretty Girl” the main romantic interest – permits readers to interpret its various lessons as broadly as possible.)
The second theme that resonated is the relationship between romance and careerism. The protagonist’s marriage falls apart because of his relentless focus on his career. And the real object of his sexual desires is not his wife but another girl who also happens to be obsessed with her career, and therefore stays firmly single despite an occasional hotel rendezvous together. Two careerists do not a couple make.
Third, I learned that the humanity of a person gets brought into relief from the juxtaposition of flaws and virtues. For example, in this book, the protagonist entrepreneur essentially misleads customers about the authenticity of his product; bribes government officials; hires employee based on nepotism; and commits other unethical or unwise acts. Yet he somehow maintains your sympathy throughout. Why? His flaws are rationalized with an air of reasonableness, and he maintains several other virtues besides. Real people tend to be a bundle of the good and bad and complicated shades of both all at the same time. Skilled writers direct a wide lens to capture this nuance–we see flaw and virtue together, and it reminds us of ourselves, and makes the whole story feel relatable.
This was a novel that was not easy to put down, and it will not be easy to forget.
Favorite paragraphs excerpted below.
As you and your parents and your siblings dismount, you embody one of the great changes of your time. 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 to 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 on-going proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their weak, insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.
It’s remarkable how many books fall into the category of self-help. Why, for example, do you persist in reading that much praised breathtakingly boring foreign novel, slogging through page after please-make-it-stop page of tar-slow prose and blush-inducing formal conceit, if not out of an impulse to understand distant lands that becaues of globalization are increasingly affecting life in your own? What is this impulse of yours at its core if not a desire for self-help?
He often imagines the feeling of tiny blood vessels bursting in his brain, a sensory effervescence, like the prickles of a foot gone to sleep.
The day you texted the pretty girl on her mobile to inform her of your impending wedding, the pretty girl was surprised, given how little you and she had come to speak in recent years, by the strength of her sadness. She had not consciously been aware of her expectation that you would always wait for her, and while her thoughts occasionally alighted upon memories of you, she had no specific plans for further encounters like the evening you shared in the hotel. So she was caught unsuspecting by her sorrow. Still, she texted you back to wish you happiness. And then, as usual, she did her best to master her feelings and buckle down to work.
You try to compensate materially, buying your wife an expensive necklace, nothing when compared to those worn by heiresses and celebrities, of course, but still of a modest splendor neither she nor you has previously possessed, and this gift pleases her, but her hope that your gesture will be accompanied by the genuine tenderness she craves soon fades, and the necklace stays in its box, unworn, on all but the odd night or two a year.
Because of a hypertrophying middle class, bulging from the otherwise scrawny body of the population like a teenager’s overdeveloped bicep…
You feel a love for [your son] you will never be able to adequately explain or express to him, a love that flows one way, down the generations, not in reverse, and is understood and reciprocated only when time has made of a younger generation an older one.