The first thing you notice when you start Mohsin Hamid’s extraordinarily clever third novel is that it’s written in the second person. That’s rare, even rarer than the first-person plural, which we enjoyed in Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides” and Eleanor Brown’s “The Weird Sisters.” In fact, you can’t remember reading anything narrated in the second person since Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” (1984), which you actually only pretended to have read after you saw the Michael J. Foxmovie.
Why not just stick with the good old third person? Don’t you find the second person hard to tolerate — the way it constantly reaches off the page and pokes you in the I?
As it turns out, that sense of being directly addressed is what this author exploits so brilliantly in “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.” Hamid, who attended Princeton and Harvard and now lives in Pakistan, has taken the most American form of literature — the self-help book — and transformed it to tell the story of an ambitious man in the Third World. It’s a bizarre amalgam that looks like a parody of the genre from one angle and a melancholy reflection on modern life from another.
With a wink to Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey, Hamid’s chapter titles lead us inexorably toward success: “Move to the City,” “Get an Education,” “Learn from a Master.” And he often strikes a perfect imitation of that overconfident, just-between-us tone that has appealed to the desperate for generations: “To be effective, a self-help book requires two things. First, the help it suggests should be helpful. Obviously. And second, without which the first is impossible, the self it’s trying to help should have some idea of what help is needed.”
So true, so true. I can picture my lonely teenage self jotting that tautological wisdom down in my secret journal.
Working within the frame of a self-help book would seem constricting at best, annoying at worst, but Hamid tells a surprisingly moving story and — crucially — a short one. His protagonist is never named, indeed, there aren’t any named people or places in this novel, although Hamid has spoken in interviews of the setting as Pakistan. But the story manages to be both particular and broad at the same time.
The hero — “You” — is a sickly boy who might have been snuffed out, as so many others in his village are, by fever or hepatitis. He and his family live in a single room, cook over a fire and drink from an open sewer. Only by chance is he not “a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree.” One in a thousand, he escapes the deadliest risks of extreme poverty when his family crosses over “the yawning gap that exists between countryside and city.” Suddenly, they’re living in a metropolitan area filled with the wonders of electricity and gas-powered cars. Forget New York: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
But this is no granular report on what lies behind the beautiful forevers. Hamid’s method is glancing, often ironical. He sketches a “most unequal city” where rich and poor are swept together in “a rising tide of frustration and anger and violence.” Smart and savage when he has to be, the boy thrives in school, starts delivering counterfeit DVDs, then “non-expired-labeled expired-goods” and, finally, bottled (and sometimes filtered) water. “You know quality matters,” the narrator notes, “especially for fakes.”
Nothing we take for granted is in place here to encourage commerce or development. “Rampant nepotism,” bribes and corruption are the rule. Political parties are just rival gangs, assassins ride motorcycles down the crowded streets and terrorists’ bombs randomly rip apart lives and homes without any particular reason.
How quaint the challenges of life in the West seem against the background of this bloody chaos, through which hundreds of millions of people maneuver every day while staring up at American movie stars. Yet Hamid’s tough hero never despairs or complains. He’s young Ben Franklin in Southeast Asia. “I want to be rich,” he tells a friend, and it’s just that simple — a bittersweet echo of the American Dream, exported around the world like bottles of Coca-Cola.
What eventually gives the story such poignancy is the young man’s unquenchable desire for “the pretty girl.” “As far as getting rich is concerned, love can be an impediment,” the narrator warns. “It dampens the fire in the steam furnace of ambition, robbing of essential propulsion an already fraught upriver journey to the heart of financial success.”
And yet, once the boy spots the pretty girl, he’s permanently smitten — all through his filthy rise. Worldly and sexually daring, she’s on a much faster track, swept up in fashion and showbiz. “As with the sun,” the narrator notes, “you have always found it difficult to gaze upon her directly.”
As the novel grows more melancholy, its ironic humor sloughs off, and we’re left with a tender love affair between two tired, old people, an antidote to that desperate desire for financial gain. This deadly Asian story of how to succeed in business while really trying finally delivers You to a very different place than he set out to reach decades earlier. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. After all, as the narrator tries to help us understand in the opening pages, “The idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.”
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA
By Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead. 228 pp. $26.95