Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1672
Author: Mohsin Hamid (b. 1971)
Publisher: Riverhead Books (New York). 240 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Time: The present and the previous seven decades
Locale: Unnamed city (resembling Lahore, Pakistan) and unnamed coastal megalopolis (resembling Karachi)
Constructed in the form of a self-help book, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the wistful story of an ambitious man's journey from rags to riches within a rapidly urbanizing and globalizing Asia.
With his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), Mohsin Hamid established himself as the leading English-language chronicler of contemporary Pakistan under the pressures of urbanization and globalization. His second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), which was modeled after Albert Camus's La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957), is narrated by an ambiguous figure who, buttonholing an American stranger in a marketplace in Lahore, recounts his own enthralling story of success and disillusionment in the United States. Both books make inventive use of the second-person pronoun "you."
Hamid's third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is addressed throughout to an unnamed "you," whose life the work traces from childhood to death. The book is a bildungsroman, a novel about the growth of its protagonist, but what distinguishes it from thousands of other novels about young men coming of age is the unusual form in which Hamid has cast his fiction. As its title suggests, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is presented as a how-to book, a popular genre for readers who seek self-improvement. Among much else, it is a sardonic parody of books that promise worldly success if the reader simply follows the book's instructions, step by step. The title of each of the novel's twelve chapters offers another piece of advice for someone intent on prospering from economic opportunities in the developing countries of contemporary Asia. "Move to the City," counsels the heading to chapter one. "Get an Education," urges chapter two. "Don't Fall in Love," warns chapter three. Each chapter is a kind of fictional gloss on its opening imperative. All the chapters together tell the rags-to-riches story of a picaresque "you," who, using ethically and legally dubious means, advances from rural indigence to a position of wealth and power in a big city. It is an Asian Horatio Alger story: through pluck and luck, "you" manage to rise far above the inauspicious circumstances of your birth.
Mohsin Hamid's innovative first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and a popular success in Pakistan and India. An international bestseller, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) received the Anisfield-Wolf Award and the Asian American Literary Award and was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.(© Jillian Edelstein)
As the third-born child of his parents, Hamid's protagonist avoids the constricting roles into which his older siblings are forced. Though sickly, he is clever and ambitious, and when his family moves to the city, he takes advantage of new opportunities to lift himself above the poverty and ignorance that might have been his fate. He studies at a university, but he learns more from resourceful mentors in shady enterprises. He gains some economic security by working for others—delivering pirated rental DVDs and selling recently expired merchandise. But his breakthrough comes when he starts his own business, selling bottled water. He boils ordinary tap water and pours it into bottles of pricey mineral water he has scavenged from restaurants. Despite violent rivals and corrupt, intrusive politicians, the company thrives and expands. Through cunning, bribery, and collusion with the military-industrial complex, the protagonist is able to hire several employees, including an armed guard; marry a beautiful woman half his age; and own an impressive house in an affluent neighborhood. He has come a long way from the single mud-walled room that his entire family shared during his childhood. However, the constant challenges of expanding his business and warding off threats take a toll on his marriage and his relationship with his son.
Hamid's novel is heir to works by Honoré de Balzac, Stendhal, Charles Dickens, Theodore Dreiser, and other authors that recount the tribulations of a young man who flees the provinces to try to make his fortune in the capital. Hamid's opportunist is another in a long line of resourceful outsiders who overcome adversity by learning to live by their wits. He is prey to other opportunistic young men, including some he trusts to help advance his business interests. A century after mass migration occurred in Europe and North America, the nations of Asia are experiencing massive dislocation as millions of citizens abandon the countryside for turbulent megacities. While many continue to live in squalor, a few buccaneer capitalists are able to amass huge personal fortunes. When the young protagonist, his parents, and his siblings abandon their rural home, they leave behind the comfort of an extended family and participate in their country's "explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential." The narrator's exhortations are ostensibly designed to assuage anxiety by providing instruction in how not only to survive but also to prosper in the big city.
In chapter seven, "Work for Yourself," the narrator draws a parallel between the main character's economic independence and the reader's autonomy. "Readers don't work for writers," he observes. "They work for themselves." Of course, readers are in reality dependent on the texts that writers provide, but the narrator is suggesting that readers have a responsibility to exercise their own imaginations by moving beyond the particularities provided in a given book. The few details provided by Hamid's spare prose are trenchant; brief reference to a drone aircraft hovering over a funeral, like the passing mention of a small urban riot that leaves one of the protagonist's delivery trucks a smoldering wreck, speaks volumes about the sinister forces lurking in the city. The narrator's direct address to the reader undercuts the illusion that readers are doing anything but turning pages and reading type. It reinforces the playfulness of the how-to format; How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia mocks its own authority as well as the value of its purported goal, getting "filthy" rich. But the novel's refusal to name any of its characters invites the reader to be complicit. Hamid's protagonist, an upwardly mobile Everyman, is every reader. Whatever their background, real readers are invited to imagine themselves as "you." Wherever they happen to live, they are invited to imagine themselves, too, as striving residents of the unnamed city in which the protagonist's career unfolds. Hamid offers a vision of global interconnection, in which any city is "this city, in this, the era of cities, bound by its airport and fiber-optic cables to every great metropolis, collectively forming, even if tenuously, a change-scented urban archipelago spanning not just rising Asia but the entire planet."
As an adolescent holding a night job delivering DVDs, the protagonist is smitten by the sight of an assistant in a nearby beauty salon. Referred to merely as "the pretty girl," she is a recurring presence throughout his life. Rising, like the protagonist, from humble origins, the pretty girl becomes a successful model, actress, and television personality. Though "you" and the pretty girl have occasional encounters, some sexual, over the years, she remains a remote, unattainable figure. Like Dante's Beatrice, she is a haunting reminder of the elusive possibility of love. Throughout the protagonist's business career and his passionless marriage, the pretty girl is an alternative to the soulless pursuit of riches in rising Asia.
Just as "you" could be any man in any city in love with any pretty woman, Hamid suggests that his fictional how-to book is like any other book, that it is in effect "Everybook": "Indeed all books, each and every book ever written, could be said to be offered to the reader as a form of self-help." However, what distinguishes this book from all other books is its flippant self-consciousness about the service it purports to provide: assisting the reader in becoming filthy rich in rising Asia. In fact, though, it is a complex work of literary art, and the service that it performs cannot be measured by any increase in its readers' financial assets.
The beginning of the final chapter, "Have an Exit Strategy," concedes that, after all, this novel "may not have been the very best of guides to getting filthy rich in Asia." Both the protagonist and the pretty girl have aged and, facing death, recognize that there are more worthy goals than the mere accumulation of capital. As urgent as it seemed to liberate themselves from poverty, they acknowledge, almost too late, the emptiness of a loveless life. In the rich wistfulness of the novel's concluding pages, "you" confront mortality and the possibility that a life devoted exclusively to acquiring riches might be a filthy waste.
The narrator observes that "the capacity for empathy is a funny thing." Despite subtle touches of dark drollery, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is not obviously funny. But its deft use of "you" makes readers from very different backgrounds want to share in the pathos of a restless and squandered life.
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- Hannan, Jim. Rev. of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. World Literature Today. University of Oklahoma, July 2013. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.
- Kakutani, Michiko. "Love and Ambition in a Cruel New World." Rev. of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. New York Times 22 Feb. 2013: C19–C22. Print.
- Mishra, Pankaj. "The Explosive Transformation." Rev. of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid. New York Review of Books 25 Apr. 2013: 33–35. Print.
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