Novelist Mohsin Hamid lives in Lahore, Pakistan, quite some distance from the Long Island of Jay Gatsby. But his new novel — his third and, I think, best so far — reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential American work. As I read this novel about the dark and light of success in a world of social instability, I kept asking myself how much I might be inflating the value of Hamid’s novel by rating it so highly. After all, this story takes the form of a gimmick, and gimmicks usually work against real quality.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia uses the conceit of a how-to book for South Asians; the book’s exemplar is a country boy on the make, always referred to in the second person, as “you.” Though there’s a danger some will find this structure and form of address forced or artificial, you, the reader, quickly get caught up in Hamid’s extremely detailed account of a life of upward social mobility in what we usually regard as a caste- and classbound part of the world.
In Chapter 1: Move to the City, the narrator first introduces — and addresses — the nameless hero, a village child “shivering, on the packed earth” under his mother’s cot one cold, dewy morning. The narrator continues:
“The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral …
“Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does.”
In this fashion, the writer informs both character and reader as he tracks his hero through every subsequent stage of life. From city delivery boy to quick-witted (and fraudulent) petty entrepreneur to the owner of a major urban water company, this fellow is almost always on the rise, his story soaked with aspiration, drenched with irony and pathetic at the core.
How, then, does one Get Filthy Rich? Each of the chapter titles offers a sometimes straightforward, sometimes ironic imperative. By the end of the first chapter, our man has put country life behind him. And then comes Chapter 2: Get an Education(which he does, both in school and on the street).ThenChapter 3: Don’t Fall in Love(advice he doesn’t exactly follow, thus changing his life forever).Chapter 4: Avoid Idealists(he manages this OK). Chapter 5: Learn from a Master (oh, yes, he does!). And so on, toward his striking success in making cash and avoiding assassination and, eventually, his inevitable fall.
Thanks to Hamid’s meticulous use of detail — and his sympathy for a man on the make in a society of endemic poverty — we engage deeply with a serious character whose essence remains his own yet who stands as a figure representative of his time and place, an effect only the best novelists can create. The secondary characters — his mother and father, for example, and to a lesser extent his wife and children — fit beautifully into this scheme.
And there’s another fine and moving example of this in our hero’s lifelong attraction for one of his neighbors, a streetwise young woman whom Hamid calls “the pretty girl.” Our hero first encounters her when both are adolescents, wandering the streets of the nameless city where they both scratch out a living. “The pretty girl” grows up to join what passes for big-city bohemian life and eventually becomes a savvy show-business presence. More important, she blossoms into a devoted friend — sometimes a sexual companion, mostly not, but always the object of our hero’s overarching longing for something to assuage his essential loneliness.
By the final chapter, Have an Exit Strategy, we have a full cast of particular characters and a life story that includes familial devotion; the pangs and pains of affection; poignant depictions of love, lust, marriage; and business, business, business — Pakistani style. Some of you may find yourselves reminded of Carlos Fuentes’ hero in The Death of Artemio Cruz, a man who embodies all of the soul and flaws of his time and place. Or, as suggested earlier, this tale of an unscrupulous striver may bring to mind a globalized version of The Great Gatsby. Given the unabashed gimmickry of Hamid’s how-to design, it’s a pleasant surprise to find that his book is nearly that good.