The Short Version: Written in the second-person, under the guise of being a self-help guide, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia charts the rise of a young indeterminately Asian man from slum boy to worker bee to intelligent business man to fading old man, all the while seeing how he crosses paths with a particular pretty girl over the course of their long lives.
The Review: Few authors can pull off the feat of calling out the inherent flaws of their own stylistic choices while simultaneously overcoming them. You are not one of those authors. But neither, it would seem, is Mohsin Hamid – who falls into a hubristic trap quite early on in his latest novel. Chapter Two begins with the following:
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 because of globalization are increasingly affecting life in your own?
Fantastically, that’s exactly what you feel like while reading this novel! It’s as though Hamid was prepared for you – you feel as though as you are slogging through page after please-make-it-stop page of maybe-not-quite-tar-slow prose and seriously-this-is-your-attempt-to-be-bold formal conceit. For the novel, if you haven’t discerned it from the conceit of this review, is in the second person. A dangerous tense if ever there was one – but when it works, it works. Just look at Bright Lights, Big City. In fact, do that. Go read that novel. I’ll wait.
Anyway. You pick up this novel, possibly because you read The Reluctant Fundamentalist or you’re getting ready for the ToBX (like I am) – and you’re intrigued by the conceit at first. A “self-help” book that, at the start of every chapter, pokes a little bit of fun at self-help books while also explaining why this will be different for you. Of course, chances are you’re not even remotely similar to the ‘you’ that Mr. Hamid is addressing here – you are not a poor child in a slum in rising Asia, nor are you that same child grown through adulthood and at the head of a moderately successful water industry.
Nor do you care, as it turns out. And that is the greatest flaw of this novel: you simply do not care. Our hero – ‘you’ – goes from being a schoolboy to his deathbed, the course of a bold life, and the idea is that you are ‘learning’ from him how to become filthy rich in rising Asia. The conceit barely holds up past about age thirty – but who cares, because you’re barely given enough information to be able to latch onto the plot in any meaningful way. The words just glide by, like scenery out the window of a train, and you look and perhaps occasionally mark some point of interest but it is gone pretty quickly and forgotten almost as fast. Dealing with a story so segmented, you find it hard to care about our hero – let alone his financial/romantic/personal woes. Hell, it takes you sometimes upwards of half a chapter to figure out how much time has elapsed and where the players currently stand – meaning that you end up spending roughly half the book catching up with the most recent jump in chronology. Why, you ask? Why would you structure a book like this, with a daring formal conceit that you then just use to gloss over all sense of character development or in-depth relationship cultivation?
This is not to say that there aren’t moments of development for the characters – there are. Sometimes, they’re even written quite beautifully – you get the sense that Mr. Hamid is a quite talented writer, even if you’ve never read any of his other work (full disclosure: I have not, myself, read any of his other work). But you do not ever find yourself caring – partially because you’re not given enough time to care before you’re tossed forward by another 5, 7, 10 years. Who cares if ‘you’ meets up with the pretty girl this time around or not? Who cares if that is the enduring love story of this young man’s life? You certainly don’t – because you’re never given all that much to care about. You’re told that these things are happening, but you never get the chance to suss out the emotions yourself. That sort of ‘telling, not showing’ irritates you, as it does with poorly wrought films & plays.
There are some attempts at narrative tomfoolery regarding the additional conceit (for you realize now that there are two, which is always one too many and often times two too many) of the “self-help” novel that sputter out at the end but affectionately, with the writer apologizing for not exactly having told you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia and perhaps this not having been a book at all. And you, the reader, discerning as you are, have two options at this point: you can nod and stroke your beard/hair/cat/significant other while pretending to appreciate how cultured and erudite you are… or you can put the book down with a feeling not of disgust but rather of disappointment, of wasted opportunity, of unnecessary literary hype used up on a thoroughly uninventive attempt at being inventive. For, at the end of the day, you realize that a finely wrought sentence or a funny turn of phrase doesn’t particularly matter when the subject is treated so superficially.
Rating: 1 out of 5. You won’t even begin to address the conceptual issue of a child in his teens stealing DVDs – meaning that, at the very earliest, it might be ~2000AD – and then aging into his 80s by the end of the novel… without any sign of the world around him changing all that much. You didn’t expect (nor would you have appreciated, under these circumstances) any sci-fi flourishes – but the idea of the 2070s in currently-rising-Asia looking anything like the 2000s (and these numbers being the absolute earliest possible years – in all likelihood, ‘you’ is stealing DVDs today and not 15 years ago) is absolutely ludicrous. But the fact that you might not in fact care by the time you get to the end of the novel, because you are just pushing to finish, is a testament to how little respect it seems Mr. Hamid has for you, his reader. Instead, he simply wants to dazzle you with his second-person narrative and his ‘insightful’ look into the socio-economic/political structure of rising Asia. Forget caring about the characters or their development or the things supposedly important to them. Why on earth would you feel that way?
In the end, when you close the book, all you can think to tell Mr. Hamid is that Aravind Adiga did a better job when he wrote this book and called it The White Tiger. Oh, sure, there were differences to the plots and you’ll inevitably get into arguments about it from now til the end of time (let alone in the ToB commentary…) – but the truth remains that this novel feels, to you, superficial at best… and a waste of time at worst.